Top 5: Tel Aviv’s hidden gems

Food enthusiasts at Taste TLV give their verdict on the best that the Tel Aviv dining scene has to offer.

By ALEXIS RACHEL DOMB
February 1, 2012 09:42
Al Matbah

Al Matbah 390. (photo credit: Kelly Levy (Kellylevy.com))

Alexis Rachel Domb is a restaurant review writer and social media coordinator for TasteTLV. TasteTLV is the ultimate culinary guide for dining in Tel Aviv.

As Tel Aviv becomes an increasingly global city, locals and travelers have the opportunity to experience diverse dining options along the bustling main streets.  However, many of the most intriguing places exist in more serene locations—tranquil alleyways, cobblestone passages, and unassuming side-streets.

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These unique hidden gems portray the dining scene’s culinary richness, which some individuals may overlook if they don't explore these secret treasures. In these quieter corners, Mediterranean flavors mingle with international tastes, expressing both tradition and innovation. Here, restaurateurs embrace the economic principle of batch production in which quality rises as they serve a smaller market.

As the influx of corporate chains continues, the dining culture’s hidden gems hold even greater importance. They reveal the desire to preserve the integrity of local culture, and they balance out the potential repercussions of an overly corporate presence. Uplifting and inspiring, these precious places deserve recognition for the personalized touch they exude. 

Al Matbah

As the crown jewel of this collection, Al Matbah encapsulates the very definition of a hidden gem. Serving genuinely homemade Middle Eastern food, this restaurant overflows with meaning, passion, and seasonal dishes that inundate the palate with flavor. The beauty of Al Matbah lies not only in the food; it also lies in the warmth of the restaurant’s purpose. Five months ago, Layla and her husband, Hamoudi, opened this place as a social project, allowing Arabic women to get out of the house to earn money, engage in social life, and share their traditional cooking. Being that Al Matbah is the Arabic term for kitchen, this family-run venue feels more like a homey kitchen rather than a restaurant. Playing classical Arabic music, Al Matbah emanates an exotic yet comfortable vibe. The tapestries on the wall burst with color as the aroma of cinnamon-simmered rice wafts through the air.

Located up a winding path past the Clock Tower, Al Matbah exists away from the hectic city streets. The first time I encountered this place, they were closing their rustic wooden doors at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon. As a telling sign, they had already run out of food for the day, which unveils Al Matbah’s desirability and its focus on quality. With only seven small tables, this place emphasizes the value of batch production. The women make everything from scratch, from the warm, za’atar-sprinkled bread to the flaky pastries served at the end with Arabic coffee.



Photo: Kelly Levy (Kellylevy.com)

The tasting menu begins with a small teacup-style glass with red designs and gold Arabic calligraphy. Inside each tiny glass, there is Arak mixed with sweet fruit compote of figs and apricots. They also make and sell their own olive oil, which they use in the cooking. One of their famous dishes is maklouba—slow-cooked brown rice with sautéed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes, eggplant, and chickpeas), olive oil, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Siniyeh koufta is another delicious dish, comprised of lamb and beef meatballs, cooked with tahini and potatoes.

The ornate, gold-framed mirror in the kitchen is angled precisely so guests can watch these women cook. At the end of the meal, Layla comes to the table with her glowing, friendly smile and delivers homemade pastries made with phyllo dough and nuts. While the food explodes with flavor, the meaningful story behind Al Matbah makes it even more alluring and heartwarming.

Yefet St. 28, Jaffa
Phone: (03) 081-895, 052-426-2473
Open Monday-Saturday noon till 5 p.m.; closed Sunday
Not kosher

Coffee Lab

Coffee Lab peers out from behind the Carmel market's majestic tapestries hanging from the ridged metal roofing. Tucked behind the fruit stands, this mini-café captures the essence of specialty coffee. With imported coffee beans from around the globe, Coffee Lab serves up one of the most exotic cups of joe in the city. This nook within the shuk allows café-goers an experience that differs from the daily grind of mainstream Tel Aviv cafés. It serves a small crowd and gives attention to every detail of the craft of coffee. Baristas here prepare steaming Americanos, dainty espressos, and frothy lattes with utmost care and quality products.

Coffee Lab’s atmosphere demonstrates its appreciation of coffee as both an art and a science. The coffee bar features four tall stools that allow guests a place to watch the brewing in action. Colossal stainless steel machinery contrasts with the rainbow pop-art images of Marilyn Monroe on the walls. This place reflects a vibe that is industrial yet comfortable.  Here, dedication to quality becomes apparent from the sheer amount of coffee-making equipment. Guests can see all of the specialized tools for roasting beans, steaming milk, and grinding coffee.

There is a homey feeling here due to the cozy, plush, eggplant-colored seats at the four two-top tables. Underneath each tabletop, there are several “coffee table books,” magazines, and board games like checkers. Inviting guests to stay a while, these aspects create a feeling of relaxation.  Furthermore, sounds of smooth jazz contribute to the calm mood here.

Adopting artifacts as interior décor, Coffee Lab features tattered coffee satchels at the front door. These appear as though they have just emerged from a cargo ship from South America, carrying beans ready for roasting. Also, the walls are lined with tall, glass cylinders that encase various types of coffee beans from diverse geographical regions. Ultimately, this gem of java offers people a place to feel the comfort of home while they stroll through the shuk. Coffee Lab captures Tel Aviv’s lovely compromise between modern inventions and small-batch intricacy and comfort.

Corner of Ha’Carmel 21 and Rebi Meir 42 (inside the market)
Phone: (03) 510-4121
Open Sunday - Thursday 8 a.m. till 6 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. till 4 p.m.; Saturday closed
Kosher (certificate is not Orthodox)

Par Derriere

Known among locals as the “secret garden” wine bar, Par Derriere hides behind a graffiti-decorated red door along King George Street. Many cafés and restaurants along King George have a more conspicuous appearance with patio seating spilling onto the sidewalk, yet this wine bar is set back from the busy main road. After passing through the red door, guests come upon an oasis of lush greenery, sparkling string lights, rustic wooden tables, and glowing candles.

The atmosphere projects a romantic aura, yet it still feels suitable for a lovely evening of catching up with old friends as well. Communal tables, cozy couches, and intimate two-tops offer people places to mingle while sipping fine wines from around the world. 

Par Derriere brings nature into the cityscape with canopies of verdant plants. Unique items like ornate Moroccan-style lamps and a Pac-Man screen built into one of the tables make this place one of a kind. 



While guests wait for a spot, they may even perch their glass on a tall wine cask made of aged French oak. In Par Derriere’s moonlit garden, visitors can escape from the calamity of city life for an evening of tranquility. However, this place can also act as a celebratory venue for lively soirees as well. 

Under Par Derriere’s enchanting foliage, savor a glass of buttery Chardonnay from France while catching up with an old friend, or sip some Australian Shiraz to calm nerves on a first date. The simply prepared food at Par Derriere utilizes high-quality ingredients. We recommend ordering a plate of European cheeses or a simple bruschetta with fresh basil from the nearby shuk. 

This wine bar provides a dreamlike ambiance in which to delight in world-class wines and to enjoy a conversation amidst the leaves and lights.  Par Derriere serves wine by the glass, bottle, and 500-millileter decanters.  This garden bar offers wine from both small boutique wineries and large-scale Israeli wineries as well. Slip behind the red door for an extraordinary time in one of Tel Aviv’s most mystical wine bars.

King George Street 4 (Behind the red door)
(03) 629-2111
Open daily from 7 p.m. till 2 a.m.
Not kosher

Mazal Arieh 5

Amidst the labyrinth of the ancient stone architecture in Jaffa, Mazal Arieh 5 is a café-bar overlooking the beautiful shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea. Following a path of art galleries, visitors may stumble upon this gem unexpectedly. The dreamlike atmosphere provides an ideal place to sit outside and enjoy a coffee, light meal, or a drink.

Underneath the patio’s colossal stone arches, guests can appreciate the view of the pink and indigo sky as the sun sinks into the horizon. In a city more than 4000 years old, Mazal Arieh 5 breathes new life into a historical place. Centuries ago, this building used to function as a fish house in this port city, and in 2005, Shmuel Yehezekiel transformed it into one of Israel’s most picturesque cafés.

Far from a run-of-the-mill café, Mazal Arieh 5 has an intriguing character. At night, the outdoor seating area twinkles from the glimmer of the string lights as guests relax on comfortable patio furniture or at whimsical tables in the open air. Furthermore, on Friday nights, this place turns into a live music venue, featuring Brazilian-inspired samba music. The owner’s passion for this variety of Latin American music is also evident in the décor elements. Above the front entrance, there is a retro neon light in the shape of an electric guitar, and behind the bar inside, there is an extensive Brazilian CD and DVD collection.  

In Hebrew, Mazal Arieh refers to the Zodiac sign for the Leo, represented by the symbol of the lion. As part of thr café-bar’s artwork, the imagery of this strong animal gives the place a more regal sense. Connecting with the magic of Jaffa, Mazal Arieh seems to be a natural extension of a visit to the famous “Wishing Bridge.” As the sea breeze enhances each moment, Mazal Arieh reminds individuals to take life slowly.

Mazal Arieh 5, Jaffa
(03) 518-9226, 054-8088-909
Not kosher

Cafe Tamar

Established in 1941, Cafe Tamar represents an historical institution of Tel Aviv. It symbolizes the city’s deeply rooted cafe culture and exposes the city’s desire to cling its past. Reminiscent souls find a haven here since it represents a microcosm of Israeli storytelling. A mere glance at the wall decor offers guests an Israeli political history lesson. Within the retro diner-style ambiance, the walls are speckled with memorabilia like portraits of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, framed political cartoon drawings, and Hebrew bumper stickers. The Israeli flag hangs proudly as part of the artful collage of images, and photographs with tattered edges grace the walls as well. 

The unique charm of Cafe Tamar exudes the comfort of a friend’s cozy living room.  As guests chat over cappuccinos, the mismatching tables and chairs reflect the place’s casual, relaxed nature. Offering classic Israeli cafe dishes and drinks, Tamar does not offer a written menu, which encourages greater social interaction and captures the place’s personal touch. With items like bagel toast with melted cheese and sliced tomato, the simplicity here adds a quaint vibe.

Cafe Tamar provides the canvas upon which guests may paint their own experience.  Framed articles from old newspapers hang behind the coffee counter. Natural tree trunks even emerge from the floor tiles, giving the atmosphere a indoor-outdoor feel.

This cafe fluidly melts into the atmosphere of the Tel Aviv streets. Under the green-striped awning outside, regulars sit at the patio tables outside while they read the morning paper, delight in a cigarette, and savor an espresso. Cafe Tamar’s distinctly Israeli identity makes it meaningful addition to our list of hidden gems.  Undiscovered by most tourists, this cafe gives guests the opportunity to bask in a realm of relics.

Shenkin 57 (the corner of Ehad Ha’am St)
(03) 685-2376
Open Sunday to Friday 8 a.m. till 8 p.m.; closed Saturday
Not kosher

Alexis earned her Bachelor's Degree in Global Studies at the University of California--Los Angeles. Her inspiration to explore culture through food stems from her love of her grandmother's Moroccan cuisine.


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