Bethlehem: History, family and food in 1890

The historic restaurant 1890 near Bethlehem is an authentic Palestinian experience.

1890 521 (photo credit: courtesy facebook)
1890 521
(photo credit: courtesy facebook)
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“Up the hill, down the hill and it’s on the right,” exclaimed Georgette Habashi excitedly, co-owner of the historic 1890 Restaurant. The Palestinian family-style restaurant, at two years old, is only a few minutes on the road leading out of the biblical town of Bethlehem into the neighboring village of Beit Jala.
Despite the small size of Bethlehem, it has a reputation that far exceeds it. As the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the church of the Nativity is one of the city’s most popular destinations. In modern times, the city changed hands from Israel to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 and has three refugee camps. The highly contentious separation barrier that runs between Israel and the West Bank is accessible from Bethlehem and is a museum of graffiti art and a history of the conflict.
But walking into the 1890 Restaurant is to leave all politics aside and truly take a step back in time in the history of the city. The restaurant is in the renovated residence of the Dar-Abu Eid Palestinian family. Built in 1890, the restaurant occupies the ground floor of the three-story home, an area that was used for seasonal food storage of cheese, olives and wood. Today, the arched-barn doors lead into a cavernous expanse warmed up with candlelight, cozy seating and family style tables. The exposed limestone bricks emulate old city architecture bring the diner back to a truly historical time.
In 1980 the Abu Eid family abandoned the home due to various reasons, and since that time it served many purposes. It was first used as a factory that produced Christian souvenirs made of olive tree wood. It then became a wax and candles factory until 1997, when the Abu Eid family decided to donate the house to the Church. In 2011, the 1890 restaurant opened to serve traditional cuisine with a modern twist in a unique, historical setting.
In Palestinian family style tradition, it is common to have a mezze platter of salads (NIS 40) and soup that fill up the table. The traditional “Grandma soup” or “Freekeh” (NIS 15) is a chicken broth with grain that is simple and satisfying. It warms the weary traveler and awakens their hunger to feast and experience all the flavors of the Middle East. The tabouleh salad, hummus, garlic potatoes, avocado and onion salad, olives and bread capitalize on local ingredients. A dish of roasted cauliflower is salty with explosive flavors of lemon. A small plate of potatoes packs a delicious potent taste of garlic that is biting and pleasing. Another small plate of eggplant is roasted to yield a crispy skin but soft inside that melts on the tongue. One of the best dishes and a traditional Middle Eastern plate not to be missed is kibbeh. A fried croquette, it is a mix of bulghur wheat, onions, meat and spices. Georgette made sure to point out that we split our kibbeh in two, squeeze a little lemon and enjoy.
A traditional main that is served is 1890’s stuffed chicken. The restaurant can prepare small, single portions of the stuffed poultry but the most popular is the whole roasted chicken to be shared family style. Sides of rice mixed with meat and spices and roasted vegetables are traditional and satisfying. The chicken is roasted to a crispy skin with juicy meat that falls off the bone.
The daily menu is traditional Arabic food with salads and starters in the NIS 30 range. Typical dishes to order are the meat Kibbeh, fried Halloumi cheese, the chicken dish of Musahkahan or the traditional Fatoush salad. The restaurant also offers a selection of pastas in the NIS 40-50 range, seafood for between NIS 50-70 and a selection of poultry that includes Chicken Cordon Bleu and Chicken Paupiette among others (NIS 40-50). A “Camel Steak” is an adventurous dish at NIS 120 and cooked in butter, spices and served with roasted potatoes.
The restaurant has a full bar and ample space to pull away tables for a great dance floor. In addition to the daily menu, Restaurant 1890 also offers an open buffet menu that caters to large groups with reservations.
The atmosphere of the restaurant makes any traveler feel at home and in fact, on this particular night, Georgette’s extended family from America crowd one area of the restaurant. There are a lot of laughs, a lot of food, and a lot of shisha (traditional tobacco water pipe).
Restaurant 1890 is located on Al-Sahadi Street – Beit Jala. Email or call 059842998. The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Laura Nichols is contributing writer to Travelujah-Holy Land tours, the leading Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.