Tables turning kosher
Contrary to its reputation as the country's secular capital, Tel Aviv now boasts some 200 restaurants offering a wide range of kosher cuisine, all fully certified by Israel's rabbinate.
The Crowne Plaza takes up some 13 floors of the square Azrieli complex, which comprises three high-rise buildings (50 floors) - one round, one square and the third triangular. The hotel opened two years ago and quickly established its reputation for the three things necessary for a good restaurant - quality food, excellent service and physical comfort. Sitting on the 11th floor of this spacious diner one enjoys a panoramic view of Tel Aviv's business district and beyond, without the intrusive noises that accompany any busy metropolis.
"We have 120 places," says Michal, the manager of the restaurant, "but they are spaced out in such a way that no one intrudes on anyone else's space."
Eyal Rosenberg, the executive chef, is convinced that you'll find nothing better in Tel Aviv. From our own sampling of both fish and meat dishes - entrées and main course - it's difficult to dispute his claim.
"We are competing with other restaurants," says Eyal, "so we have to be better. It is harder to entice people into a hotel." While, as Michal notes, most of their customers come from the surrounding offices, "gradually and mainly by word of mouth, our name is getting out and increasingly we are attracting tourists and groups from abroad."
The food is reasonably priced. A business lunch is 99 NIS (comfortably less than £20), a main course at the separate bar is 55 NIS (less than £10). Evening meals are accompanied by live jazz.
Another sophisticated venue is AlterNativ, a dairy restaurant near Kikar Medina on the northern side of town and once the hangout for the smart set and celebs.
Tzvika, a religious ex-pilot, took over more than six years ago - knowing the sort of customers to expect, but knowing, too, that as a kosher dairy restaurant he wouldn't have too much competition in this yuppie milieu. By demanding high standards and employing seven different chefs, he guaranteed a wide and ever-changing variety of dishes. "I told my chefs to treat their dishes as a work of art."
The result can be seen in the demand for AlterNativ's dishes. The location, on Rehov Weizman 3, has 120 places, plus a room for 70 to 80 diners for private functions.
On the other side of town is the newly opened Tachana complex, on the original site of the Turkish train station. Inside this renovated space are dozens of boutique shops selling hand-made clothes and jewellery as well as a feast of restaurants.
Regina, run by Daphna Bar Zion, has the distinction of being the only kosher one. The restaurant offers a wide variety of ethnic foods – Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi and oriental.
"The reality is," says Daphna "that today's kosher diners are sophisticated. They know lots more about food and wine and they demand quality fare accordingly. This is what we try to offer."
Further into Jaffa is Le Relais (Bat Ami Street 7). The place is British-built (once the resting place for visitors going to Jerusalem by horse and carriage), but the French-Moroccans owners gave it a complete overhaul some 30 years ago, retaining the feel of the original building - high ceilings, potted palms and all - but adding a French dimension to the décor, as well as to the menu - which they describe as "classic French Gastronomy," based on traditional French sauces and such dishes as couscous.
"It's a tried formula," says Chani, the co-owner, "and we've kept to it. We appear regularly in Fodor's Guide."
Couscous also appears on the menu at Dr Shakshuka, near the Clock Tower on the edge of Jaffa's famous flea market. Inspired by traditional Tripoli food, the actual restaurant holds about 80 people, but its surrounding space, under huge awnings, can take another 200. This is a favourite hang-out for tourists, with oodles of salads, oriental meat dishes and a gritty atmosphere that is missing from more upmarket places.