Israeli restaurants can be dark, loud places with faux-friendly service and expensive wine. But they’re really great if you know how to enjoy them.
Here in Israel, you’ll be very hard pressed to find a bad meal. After all, the produce is amazing, our cooking is celebrated worldwide and Israeli chefs are rocking it both at home and abroad.
What might be a lot easier to find, however, is a bewildering dining experience.
This is why we thought it useful to provide you with all the necessary tips to handle and make the most out of the restaurant experience.
Our recommendations are, of course, to be taken in a humorous manner, but you know what they say – there’s a grain of truth in every joke.
Make a reservation or turn up at your peril
Israel is a hugely informal country, and planning something like a playdate, meeting or even a wedding years ahead is literally unheard of here. The only exception, it would seem, is the local dining scene, where to bag a spot at one of the top restaurants you need to order months in advance.
How much in advance? For quite a few years, I’ve been planning on taking my husband to a famous Tel Aviv restaurant for his birthday. His birthday is in November, and every August I’m proud of myself for thinking ahead to make a reservation. And each year I fail, because it’s already fully booked.
Most places aren’t quite as bad, but good luck finding a table on any given night in Tel Aviv without a reservation.
Ignore the greeters’ lack of hospitality
When you call the restaurant to make a reservation (after the online system fails you), most likely you’ll be answered with a curt “hold on” followed by the host/hostess putting the phone down while dealing with real-time customers.
Upon arriving at the restaurant, chances are that the host/hostess will be on a break, or busy chatting to someone, drink in hand. Should you dare interrupt, you’ll be given a hostile glare and taken unenthusiastically to your seat. The only smile you’ll receive will be when they enthusiastically bid you goodbye when you leave.
Switch on your phone light to read the menu
A quick survey among my family indicates that upon reaching a certain age (hey there, Dad) you’ll be whipping out your phone flashlight to decipher the menu. Restaurants in Israel can be incredibly dark, and while a younger crowd might find it atmospheric, a slightly older one finds it good enough reason never to return (again, hello there Dad).
Oh, and a side note on English-language menus. They always have terrible translation mistakes. It really doesn’t matter how fancy or expensive they are – apparently, restaurant budgets don’t stretch to include proofreading. I am open to take on the task, and ready to accept payment in food form.
Ask how much that delicious special will cost
In some establishments, it’s still customary that the day’s specials are not written on a menu, but rather are lengthily announced by your server. What’s often not announced is their cost, so don’t be shy. If you don’t ask the price, you could find yourself paying a whole lot more than you were intending.
Sit closely to hear one another
Israeli restaurants provide for a very intimate experience, if only due to the fact that you’ll need to sit far too close to your dinner date to hear a word of what’s being said. Incredibly loud music is the norm and sometimes even the trademark of the restaurant, as in the case of the world-famous, Michelin-starred MachneYuda empire. Even completely average restaurants can be very noisy. Unless you’re perfectly fine with that, we suggest that you ask to sit outside.
Be showered by faux love from your waiter
Remember the unfriendly host/hostess from above? Well, your server will make it up to you by showering you with faux love. To begin with, they’re likely to call you “bro,” “friend,” or even “darling.” Then, they will proceed to talk about your dinner party in the “we” form: “Are we alright?” “We’re loving this, right?”
Every time a plate hits the table and you mutter your thanks, you’ll immediately get the reply, “with love.” To us, this seems like butchering the whole concept of love, and is incredibly annoying to hear 20 times a night. But maybe that’s just a personal peeve.
Dig in to your dinner date’s plate
Anyone who’s eaten out with Israelis can understand why we’re so famous abroad for Israeli-style sharing platters. This is because, platters or not, we share our food. What’s mine is yours and yours is mine, even if you wanted that delicious dish all for yourself.
And we’re not just sharing with immediate family or friends – at my first breakfast meeting with my colleagues at ISRAEL21c, for example, my editor (i.e. boss), repeatedly urged me to take a bite of her croissant. By our next lunch date, I was already offering her to have a taste of what I ordered.
Feel free to return your order
In Israel, it is perfectly acceptable to return your order if you don’t like it. Nothing has to be technically wrong with it in order to return it, so no need to invent overcooked meat or too much salt or the like.
But do return it immediately, and not after having eaten half of it already – that’s just bad manners.
Have a glass of excellent wine
Israeli wine is absolutely fabulous, and we strongly urge you to (responsibly) have a glass or two with your dinner. The only downside is the price tag – at top restaurants, you may not find a glass leaving you much change from a $20 bill.
Oh, and another local oddity. Wine glasses in Tel Aviv are often on the scant side, which is super annoying. In Jerusalem, they are almost always far more generous. Try it out for yourself next time you’re here.
Prepare to part with your cash
Israel, ladies and gentlemen, is an expensive country. This also holds true to the restaurant industry, where high rent, taxes, produce and salaries translate into the dish price. It is super annoying to Israelis when they travel overseas to countries where fine cuisine costs much less. We love to complain about it, but we also love eating out, and there’s no point in trying to interrupt that vicious cycle.
Be generous with your tip
Despite the above, Israelis are very generous with their tips. This is because almost everyone in the country was once a server themselves – after the army, during college – or is the parent/grandparent/sibling of one. We also know that the large majority of the server’s income comes from cash tips (a troublesome point in its own), so are ready to go that little extra mile.
And one important thing: unlike in the States, we don’t circle how much tip we want to leave on the check. Either leave it in cash, or tell your server to add it to the check when you pay. Ten percent is considered mandatory, and in Tel Aviv round it up to 15%. For exceptional service, make it 20.