Tel Avivians are eternal optimists. Give us the sun, a good cup of coffee, and the company of friends, and we're happy. Give us a plate of food, and we're transcendent.
Maybe it's all the caffeine. Café culture is an integral part of life here, and the city is brimming with local chains, such as Espresso Bar. The most popular order is a café hafuch ("upside-down coffee"), another name for cappuccino. Locals linger for hours, talking to friends at their table or on the other end of the cell phone--often both at the same time. At Espresso Bar's newest branch on Dizengoff Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares, you'll be hard-pressed to find a free table on Fridays, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., peak time to schmooze before Shabbat dinner.
Open 24 hours, Brasserie M&R is popular for late-night cocktails. Its best bargain, however, is Friday or Saturday brunch, when $10-$13 gets you a cocktail; a basket of hot-from-the-oven rolls and muffins; your favorite coffee drink; and eggs Benedict, gravlax blini, pancakes, or porridge.
There are countless hummus joints where the service is fast, the food is cheap, and the process of eating is part of the fun. Ali Karavan, also known as Abu Hassan, is a classic hole-in-the-wall three miles down the coast in Jaffa, technically part of Tel Aviv. The entire menu consists of masabacha (chickpeas in warm hummus-tahini sauce), labaneh (a soft cheese made out of yogurt), and hummus with or without ful (slow-cooked fava beans). Each item costs $2.50, and all orders come with pita bread, raw onions, and a piquant lemon-garlic sauce on the side. To eat, tear off a piece of pita and wipe up hummus from the outside in; alternate with bites of onion, and never use a fork. Ali Karavan is open every day except Saturday (Shabbat), from 8 a.m. until the day's hummus runs out, usually mid-afternoon.
The deck at Manta Ray has a prime view of the Mediterranean coastline and the minarets in Jaffa. The food is equally awesome. Grilled fillet of drum fish--a type of Mediterranean fish similar to bass--is accompanied by mango chutney, Dijon mustard, and pesto ($19). You could make a whole meal of Manta Ray's small plates; they vary by season, and may include bulgur; chopped mango; fresh spinach and shrimp; or figs baked with feta. They're usually about $3 each.
Eight years ago, chef Mika Sharon, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, opened the trendy restaurant Mika. Her cooking is a fusion of French, Italian, and Asian. Take Bouillabaisse Mika--a seasonal lemongrass-and-ginger-infused soup of calamari, blue crab, shrimp, and fresh-caught Mediterranean fish such as grouper, sea bream, or red snapper ($20). "Business lunches" are always a better deal than ordering à la carte--some are available as late as 6 p.m., and you don't need a briefcase to qualify. At Mika, the business lunch includes a choice of first course, second course, and soda for $18. Mika's secondary draw is its location, a few blocks from Rothschild Boulevard, which has some fine examples of 1930s Bauhaus architecture.
Fusion, schmusion--on weekends, Tel Avivians miss their mothers. At Batia, locals get their fix of Ashkenazi comfort food, one of the many ethnic cuisines in and around the city. Batia excels at Ashkenazi signatures like creamy chopped liver; chicken soup with kneidalach (matzo balls) or kreplach (Jewish ravioli); sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage; and Polish-style, slightly sweet gefilte fish (each dish is around $3). Crispy schnitzel--deep-fried, breaded chicken cutlets--are every Israeli child's idea of paradise ($10). On Friday and Saturday, the restaurant also serves cholent, a traditional, slow-cooked, bean-and-barley dish with meat and potatoes that sticks to your ribs from the beginning of Shabbat until Sunday. Prices range from $5 to $10.50, depending on whether you want it plain, with extra meat, or with kishke--you don't want to know what that is, just eat it, it's good.
For another example of comfort food, Gueta, a family restaurant in Jaffa, has consistently delicious regional cooking from Libya. Start with an assortment of dishes like cherchi (a spicy condiment of pureed pumpkin), pickled vegetables, preserved lemons, olives, and filfelchuma (garlic-hot pepper sauce), which cost $1.30 per person for a combination of three to four plates. Gueta is helmed by Leah Gueta, the matriarch, who makes couscous daily. Her couscous complet ($10) comes with three different sauces that have simmered for hours over a low flame: tibeha bil'salk (spinach, white beans, and beef); tibeha bil camun (kidney beans and beef in cumin-spiced tomato sauce); and brudu (vegetable soup).
In the last decade, sushi restaurants have sprouted up like shiitake mushrooms. At stylish Onami, chef Aya Imatani serves the traditional array of gourmet sushi, but the real treats are her authentic Japanese classics like goma doufu, a traditional sesame tofu served cold with spicy miso sauce ($3.50); and lousujyu yakiniku, tender beef stir-fried with fresh mushrooms, onions, and barbecue sauce ($11).
When there's something to celebrate, Tel Avivians choose Raphael, a French-Mediterranean restaurant overlooking the water. Seasonal specialties include polenta with parmigiano-reggiano and caviar ($10.75), or an appetizer of warm and cold foie gras with white leeks and sherry-vinegar caramel ($14.50). The sea bream entrée is roasted with tomatoes and pickled lemon ($19). Finally, the Valrhona chocolate with praline cream and cocoa sorbet rounds out a meal worth celebrating in its own right ($10).