Dining in the middle of a garden of palms, roses and fine dining

The American Colony Hotel Summer Bar Restaurant offers an almost Eden-like tranquility

The American Colony Hotel Bar Restaurant (photo credit: SARAH EICHLER)
The American Colony Hotel Bar Restaurant
(photo credit: SARAH EICHLER)
The man currently in charge of the American Colony Hotel, Jeremy, is having a bad day. There is talk that east Jerusalem, as a COVID red zone, will be in lockdown within a few days, but nobody is sure. The police chief has said that if it is, he may put his barriers at the junction to the left of the hotel’s entrance, and then it will be closed. Or he may put them to the right, and then the hotel will be open, but nobody is sure.
“So what should I tell my guests?” he asks me.
This strikes me as a peculiarly Israeli problem. My first year as a new immigrant has taught me that uncertainty is the name of the game here. Will there be elections? Will there be a third intifada? Will Saudi Arabia be among the Arab nations willing to make peace? Nobody is sure. But the American Colony, situated as it is on the border between east and west Jerusalem, is particularly enigmatic in its unwillingness to be pinned down.
It is also the corollary to these problems because in truth, for the guests at least, the hotel is neither east nor west but a sort of nether world, an escape from real-world uncertainly to an almost Eden-like tranquility where, for the guests at least, these questions slip quietly away through the palms and roses.
And like Eden, it feels very much like home.
Let’s get down to business and talk about the food. The food is good. It’s honest, it’s hearty. The portions are massive.
I start with the goat cheese salad and it comes out in a bowl big enough to be set down in the midst of a family supper. Deep fried pieces of cheese are like jewels among the leaves.
My friend orders the focaccia with sausage, but one in the party keeps kosher (although not strictly) and we’d like to share. No problem says the waiter, we’ll do it half-half. When he returns, the chef has split the dough into two breads, one with sausage, one without and both a delight, warm and pillowy like a grandmother’s hug.
We move on to the catch of the day. We have a choice between whole or filleted, and take one each. There are more options: fries, potatoes or salad? We both go for salad (the night is too hot for carbs). For some reason the dish comes wrapped in a thin tortilla that is marginally baffling, but tucked inside is a sumptuous roasted fish, its soft flesh sighing away from the bones and onto a fork.
A skewer of vegetable bites is bedded in among more leaves, and all of it is really very good. There is no showiness here, no pretense or pomp and circumstance. There is no need. There is only the quiet confidence of a restaurant and a hotel that know what they are: an escape, an oasis, a sea of tranquility between two worlds at war. The hotel is currently open to guests from within Israel, and I can’t think of a place more ideal to offer a relaxing escape from the daily grind.
ALL OF THIS is set off perfectly by the surroundings of the Summer Bar Restaurant set into the garden of the hotel, which has been cleverly designed so that each table is in seclusion. Of course it lends itself particularly well to the coronavirus era. Upon inspection to see whether a capsule could be carved out for 30 guests, the inspector advised that two could be formed, and so they have been, with separate kitchens no less. But it also creates a feeling of intimacy, as though the other voices you hear are those of neighbors in their own gardens while you dine in yours.
My friend loosens his tie and I lean back in my chair, glass of wine in hand, as we chat. Mussa the cat comes by to see if we’re generous enough to share, and instantly I feel at home. And this is the genius of the American Colony: it feels like home. Not the home of the real world where as the back drop to meals there are problems – school runs to be organized, businesses to be operate, washing up to be done. No, like Eden, this is the home we long to return to, where nights are long and warm, the company is good, and the world beyond the walls fades to eternity. So of course there is a cat waiting for fish bones. What else would there be?
Dessert is the crowning glory of the meal. The apple pie is heavenly, thick slabs of warm baked apple bedecked with thin crisp pastry, neatly set off with a sumptuous vanilla ice cream. The chocolate mousse is divine; creamy and flavorful. Not so rich as to be sickly, it truly is a masterpiece of modesty and balance. Like everything else about the American Colony, its triumph lies in simply giving unassuming joy in abundant quantities.
The hotel is about 120 years old. The stories of it abound. Already I have heard it spoken about in Jerusalem in whispered, reverent tones. Whole books have already been written about its history, so there is little I can add at this point.
But one golden nugget in our conversation with Jeremy jumped out at me. The hotel was originally founded by a group of families from America and Sweden, and is still owned today by the descendants of those founders. And like the best family owned businesses, the business is part of the family.
Employees, Jews and Arabs alike, are prioritized over profit, for, as one of the owners, an elderly Christian lady, told Jeremy, “This place was created to bring peace between the children of Abraham.”
The words are given particular meaning by the latest big news: the Abraham Accords carved out between the UAE and Israel, bringing hope for the first time not just of ceasefire but of friendship between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the Middle East.
And so they resonate, and suddenly the whole thing makes sense: A retreat on the borderline between east and west Jerusalem, where there is no distinction between Jew and Arab, there is just family and friendship and good food in abundance.
In short, behind the walls to the American Colony, Eden awaits.
The American Colony’s Garden Restaurant is currently open every evening from 6-11 p.m.
1 Louis Vincent Street, Jerusalem.
Reservations are not required.
The writer was a guest of the American Colony’s Garden Restaurant.