The Tel Aviv Moment: Israel's Cultural Capital Is Ready For Its Close-Up
Fueled by its Bauhaus legacy, world-class nightlife, and live-in-the-moment spirit, the city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast has slowly captured international attention for decades. Now it's asserting itself as a marquee destination on par with some of the world's most celebrated cultural heavyweights.
In Tel Aviv, history and the future are in a tug of war.
One of the most ancient places on Earth, founded around 1600 B.C., the land has been inhabited by everyone from the Egyptians and Greeks to Israelis and Muslims. (A conflict over ownership that is still playing out today on bloody terms.) Nicknamed the White City for its panoply of UNESCO-certified Bauhaus architecture, the city’s multicultural heritage is woven into its fabric from Jaffa to Neve Tzedek to Lev Ha’ir.
Yet modern Tel Aviv is a place of constant reinvention and a hub of innovation. After a decades-long stretch of development, Israel’s cultural capital seems primed to take its place among the pantheon of the world’s great destinations. Like many great stories of post-Cold War transformation, this one begins with techno.
“There was nothing more desolate than Tel Aviv in the early ‘90s, but the DJs and underground scene of London would come and play on Thursday and Friday at these wonderful places that were better than any I saw in New York, even Limelight,” says Mati Broudo, the hospitality impresario behind a collection of the Tel Aviv’s standout venues such as Hotel Montefiore, Delicatessen, and Herzel 16. “It started with nobody here and it evolved into a weekend destination.”
Broudo has been shepherding Tel Aviv’s hospitality come-up since debuting Coffee Bar in 1994. The café took cues from the 24-hour diner Florent in New York’s Meatpacking District, famous for its egalitarian ethics and Star-Wars-bar vibe during the ‘80s until it closed in 2008. Night after night, a crowd of artists, drag queens, club kids, celebrities, and counterculture misfits coalesced to revel together in one of the underbelly’s most electric atmospheres.
“It was at the end of the world, the waitresses were in drag, and the heels were as big as two floors. It was the most amazing scene—also, French cuisine in a diner!” Broudo says. “I wanted to recreate that idea in Tel Aviv.”
Like its muse, Coffee Bar is a trailblazer whose magnetism hasn’t diminished nearly 30 years later. The landscape around it, however, has changed dramatically. These days, in any direction you look, someone is building something new. International hotels, high-end condominiums, experimental restaurants—the backwater town of a few decades ago is showing some gravitas.
Case-in-point: Feigin Architects’ gleaming glass tower, the David Kempinski Hotel, along the Mediterranean Sea promenade which marks the European brand’s first footprint in Israel. Across town, Jaffa, known for its warren of cobblestone alleyways and historic port, has evolved into the epicenter of the city’s glorious juxtaposition of old and new. Set in a former turreted 1883 convent, a recently debuted outpost of Soho House is the country’s first social club and a sign of Tel Aviv’s growing cultural clout—the brand brings a certain cool cache wherever it plants a flag. Across the street, British architect John Pawson has masterfully restored another convent—the School of the Sisterhood of Saint Joseph—and an adjacent 19th-century French hospital, converting the complex into the stunning Jaffa Hotel.
Sigal Baranowitz and Irene Goldberg are on the front lines of the young city’s increasingly sophisticated maturation. The co-principles of Baranowitz & Goldberg Architects recently completed the daring new restaurant “a” in collaboration with local firm Pitsou Kedem. Located on the second floor of the Sarona Tower, chef Yuval Ben Neriah’s creativity and precision are on equal footing with the most revered culinary temples in New York, London, Hong Kong, and beyond.
Housed in a textural space with muted gray and aquamarine tones, a dimly lit bar backed by a sake library and statement aluminum piper chandelier set the table for an inventive Japanese menu that plays with methods like fermentation and smoking using local kibbutz-sourced ingredients. Patrons lucky enough to snag a reservation are treated to dishes such as “spaghetti” yellowfin tuna and one-bite “pillows” made of fish tartar, koji-buckwheat foam, charred eggplant powder, and yolk egg cream.
“Yuval is an excellent example of somebody who keeps evolving and challenging the Israeli crowd,” says Baranowitz, reflecting on their first collaboration together, a Southeast Asian street food restaurant named Taizu that opened in 2013. “He’s very special in that way because he’s like a scientist who travels to go do his research, and then he comes back home and creates his own interpretation.”
Bringing things back is a hallmark of the Israeli identity—the inherent drive to return is easy to understand. On a recent visit, the zeal for life was unmistakable. People spilling out of restaurants and bars every night of the week is a common feature of the urban aesthetic. Emerging out of the pandemic, the city is alive. It isn’t so much a spirit of renewal as excitement about the future. Cranes dot the sky in every direction. Not even a terrorist attack in which a Palestinian gunman killed three people could dampen the energy during my trip this past April.
“It’s just an attitude, it’s a cultural thing. We don’t necessarily have roots so our eyes are always outwards and we’re [constantly] reinventing ourselves” Baranowitz says. “You don’t know what’s going to hit you next. We’re good at jazz because we’re really good at improvising. We don’t necessarily know how to drill deep but we’re constantly running and moving forward. I guess it has to do with the fact that maybe our ground doesn’t ever feel safe.”
One Israeli-bred talent with a wandering gaze is the Jerusalem-born chef and restaurateur Eyal Shani. Since launching his first restaurant in 1989, Oceanus, a humble Mediterranean spot inspired by his agronomist grandfather’s teachings, he’s gone on to establish global brands such as HaSalon and Miznon.
Shani, along with partner Shahar Segal, has put a modern stamp on Israel’s food traditions and exported them to the world—he oversees a portfolio of 40 international restaurants from Paris to New York to Melbourne. His latest is Shmoné, a market-driven concept situated in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Shani’s global endeavors haven’t distracted his focus back home. Port Said, an indoor-outdoor gastro bar located near the city’s largest synagogue, is one of the hottest tables in town. It’s the type of joint that pulsates with vinyl record tunes late into the night and serves up a vegetable-forward menu on brown paper bag placemats. Shani perfectly embodies the country’s transient mindset.
“Israel has changed a lot and is always developing. It’s a relatively new country so we have the ability to import things to our culture and create new shapes,” he says. “We’re always looking for the new and mostly prefer to forget the past. The Israeli lifestyle is to live in the now as if it’s all going to disappear.”
He’s not the only native son making their mark on the hospitality world from afar. Self-taught interior designer Saar Zafrir is pushing the boundaries of narrative-driven experiences from his office in London. Known for his expressive hospitality projects such as Brown Beach House Croatia and Provocateur Berlin, Zafrir has a knack for letting his imagination run wild. The new 59-room Craves in Brussels, located in the Belgian city’s 17th-century central square, is just the latest example with an Art Deco design language and an array of sensorial surprises.
Nostalgia powered Zafrir while working on another just-finished commission, the Galei Kinneret Hotel, located on the ancient Sea of Galilee, in the country’s northern reaches near the borders with Jordan and Syria. “I have such fond memories growing up and spending my summers on the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] that despite not generally working in Israel, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to do a project that carried so much sentimental value to me,” he says.
The property, which first opened in 1946 as a recreation of Lake Como’s iconic Villa d’Este Hotel, fell into disrepair and sat empty for years. Restoring the original facade and preserving the archeological remains discovered during renovation, Zafrir ensured the interiors were light, minimal, and full of natural materials to achieve a sense of balance.
In a nod to the original owner Lotte Eisenberg’s vision, the eponymous restaurant turns out European-style recipes infused with Jerusalem flavors. Chef Asaf Granit, whose collection of restaurants includes the Michelin-starred Shabour in Paris and Tom Dixon–designed Coal Office in London, invigorates the hyper-local menu with ingredients grown between the Galilee Mountains and Golan Heights.
The jewel of the dining room is a sprawling installation of green ceramic tiles crawling up archways like unruly ivy. Just outside lies a glass-bottom pool overlooking the ruins discovered during excavation. There’s also a circular bar punctuated with an arboreal sculpture by artist Gilad Keinan that shades guests from the Middle Eastern heat and is an ideal place for sundowners. The aluminum structure recalls Zafrir’s past experiences at Burning Man—another memory at a property built on them. “I aimed to create something that isn’t Israel, but it’s in Israel,” he says.
More and more, Tel Aviv is proving its chops on the global stage. This January, Broudo will try to replicate the magic of Coffee Bar when he pulls up the curtain on R48 Hotel and Garden, slated to fetch the highest room rate on the market. Ten years in the making, the property is encased inside the shell of a Bauhaus building on tony Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s answer to Paris’s Champs-Élysées or Fifth Avenue in New York. Under the watchful eye of the Israel Conservation Authority, French interiors firm Studio Liaigre teamed with High Line landscape designer Piet Oudolf and local preservation specialists AN+ Architects to resurrect the historic structure.
The idea for the 11-suite R48 was sparked during a yachting trip through the French Riviera, Broudo says. “But the problem is the places where billionaires go are the most boring in the world.” From the rooftop plunge pool fringed by Oudolf’s Mediterranean garden to the high-concept fine dining restaurant and casual all-day brasserie on the ground floor, a sensational mix of heritage architecture, local artworks, and Modernist interventions like an all-glass elevator will make R48 one of the most rarefied guest experiences in the city—and possibly the world.
The building’s Bauhaus origins stretch back to 1933, when European architects brought the avant-garde International Style to Israel. The movement bequeathed Tel Aviv with the moniker the White City, and nearly a century later, that era’s marvels are one of its defining characteristics. Another metamorphosis is underway today only this time transplants aren’t the ones leading the charge. The authors of the biblical city’s next chapter are homegrown.
TEL AVIV TRAVEL GUIDE
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Montefiore Ruti Bruodo’s residential–style 12-room property with a buzzy restaurant that puts a Vietnamese spin on French dishes. Hotel Montefiore, 36 Montefiore Street.
Soho House The London-based private members club takes over a historic convent in Jaffa. Soho House Tel Aviv, 27 Yefet St.
The Jaffa, A Luxury Collection Hotel
Painstakingly restored Roman architectural details of the 19th-century landmark harmoniously blend with British architect John Pawson’s minimalist design in the 120 guest rooms, 32 residences, and communal spaces. The Jaffa, 2 Louis Pasteur St.
The Drisco Gorgeous renovation of an 1866 building, formerly the Jerusalem Hotel, located in the historic American-German Colony. George & John is a highlight thanks to chef Tomer Tal’s modern Israeli cuisine (cashew and Za’atar tortellini, charcoal-grilled asparagus with fried capers vinaigrette and garlic) that earned the restaurant a top ten designation on the Middle East and North Africa 50 Best list. Drisco, 4-6 Auerbach.
David Kempinski Tel Aviv A sparkling all-glass skyscraper on the promenade with 250 rooms and suites, five kosher dining venues, a cigar bar, multiple pools, and beachside access. David Kempinski Tel Aviv, 51 HaYarkon St.
WHERE TO EAT
Helmed by boundary-pushing Israeli chef Yuval Ben-Neriah, the interior features a textural design that reflects the dynamic cuisine: hot and cold, spicy and sweet, salty and sour. The space is outfitted in muted grey and aquamarine tones, green terrazzo floors, and a dimly lit bar backed by a sake library and adorned with a show-stopping aluminum piper chandelier. Expect a menu of Japanese–inflected dishes prepared using a range of techniques, from fermentation to open-flame cooking. “a”, 121 Begin, Azrieli Sarona Tower.
Coffeebar Ruti & Mati Broudo’s interpretation of New York’s famed Florent. Coffee Bar, 13 Haruzim St.
Herzl16 The Broudo’s café-bar with nightly DJs and live performances. Herzl16, 16 Herzl.
Eyal Shani’s vegetable-centric restaurant replete with vinyl DJs. Port Said, 5 Har Sinai St.