I didn’t expect to eat particularly well in Israel. I had memories from my last visit of endless amounts of falafel, fish and salad, and not much else. But I was pleased and surprised to find that the food had changed out of all recognition. Eating out in Jerusalem was one of the many pleasures of this trip.
Local and International Cuisine
Of course, you will find lots of Middle Eastern food here. There is no shortage of hummus and falafel (fried balls of crushed chickpeas), or of halva, a sesame-based dessert. And tahini, a versatile sesame paste, seems to turn up everywhere. I even had tahini on ice cream in one restaurant; doused with honey and nuts it was an unusual but surprisingly enjoyable combination.
But the population of Jerusalem has its roots in communities around the world, and there is also a thriving international cuisine. There are Armenian cafés in the Old City, and Italian and Mediterranean restaurants in the new town. What you often find is a sort of fusion, different cuisines adapted to local ingredients. This is particularly evident in the breakfast buffets served in large hotels: a dazzling array of salads, hot and cold dishes, fish and cheeses.
What You Need to Know When Eating Out in Jerusalem
Several Israeli restaurants follow a strict kosher regime. The rules of kosher are complex (if you’re interested you can read more here), but one important principle is that meat and dairy cannot be combined at the same meal. Some kosher restaurants are described as “dairy” (serving no meat) while others serve meat but no dairy products. Both types of restaurant include fish on their menus. Some hotels follow the same pattern: my hotel (the Dan Panorama) was “dairy kosher”, with no meat, as was the Inbal Hotel, where I was treated to an excellent buffet in their Executive Lounge.
You also need to be aware that there is a virtual shutdown of restaurants in the new city during the Jewish Sabbath (from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday). During this time the easiest place to find a meal is within the Old City. On a lesser scale, many restaurants in the Christian and Armenian quarters of the Old City close on a Sunday.
Eating Out in Jerusalem: My Recommendations
One thing that struck me was that Jerusalem has a lot of top class and expensive restaurants. It also has excellent cafés and street food. However, mid-range restaurants are harder to find. If you are here for a few days and on a budget, you may find that alternating street food with upmarket restaurant meals is a good solution.
I had an excellent, although rather pricy, meal in the very popular non-kosher Chakra (this is where I had the ice cream with tahini). Equally good, and a bit cheaper, is the dairy kosher Anna Italian Café (see my earlier post on Anna). For cafés and street food try the stalls of the Machane Yehuda Market and the winding streets of the Old City. (The Armenian Tavern, not far from the Jaffa Gate, is notable for its cheap food and speedy service, and it is worth visiting for its décor alone.) Or you could try a tour with BiteMojo, trying small “bites” of food at restaurants and cafés around the city.
A Selection of Local Wines
Much of my food was washed down with excellent local wines. That was unexpected: despite frequent references to wine in Biblical times, the modern Israeli wine industry barely existed last time I was there. However, over the last twenty years or so there has been a big expansion of winemaking in Israel, and there are now around 300 wineries across the country. There is even kosher wine (again, the rules for this are a bit complicated…)
Overall, both the food and the wine in Jerusalem came as a surprise to me. A modern restaurant and café scene, and lots of great experiences.
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