Brothers to the rescue: Jerusalem’s new café culture

Urban gentrification creates caffeinated, warm spaces to while away the winter.

Cohen’s Deli, Katamon branch (photo credit: DUDI SAAD/THE MEDIA LINE)
Cohen’s Deli, Katamon branch
(photo credit: DUDI SAAD/THE MEDIA LINE)
Jerusalem is a city thirsting for calm. Caffeinated calm.
These havens have been in short supply. Once a city of elegant, continental cafés both in its east and west sides, where steaming Viennese-style coffee and cream-filled cakes were served to ladies of a certain class, perched on generously upholstered leather banquettes in the afternoons, the Holy City in recent decades fell into something of a coffee rut. The old cafés lost their public, then their owners. The younger generation didn’t have a natural connection to millefeuilles.
Fast-food and falafel joints predominated, many of which offered gritty, bitter cups of dark dredge that was quickly and unceremoniously gulped down in the place of dessert. Java, in short, often offered up all the pleasure of a tetanus shot.
In east Jerusalem, the El Dorado Café, a traditional powerhouse, shut down its upstairs cafeteria and devoted its energies to the downstairs coffee roaster cum chocolate emporium.
In west Jerusalem, chains started popping up. Jerusalem- based Aroma espresso bars made locals proud as they mushroomed around the country before making the great leap to America. These were good – but about as personal as the post office.
What the capital needed, in short, was someone who could give it a boost.
Enter the brothers Muna, Cohen, Tahhan, and the virtually if not biologically fraternal pair Jubran & Daas.
In 2009, the six Muna brothers, who already owed a successful stationery and school supplies shop on east Jerusalem’s Salah e-Din Street, bought a dusty newspaper shop and turned it into the Educational Bookshop, a shiny hub of books, journals, coffee, soup, sandwiches, cake, Wi-Fi and, six years later, have transformed it into a cultural center, drawing Jerusalem intellectuals to public events.
Expanding, Ahmed and Mahmoud, the two brothers most in charge of the operation, acquired the venerable American Colony Bookshop.
Without any connection, in 2012, Shimon and Yehuda Cohen, also brothers, decided to take over the lease of what had once been their grandfather’s grocery store, a mainstay of the neighborhood of Katamon since the ’50s.
When he retired, an Italian couple took it over and sold fresh pasta. When they, too, decided it was time for their pensions, the Cohens, who grew up on their dad’s gourmet cuisine, decide it was time to spruce things up.
They painted the old-fashioned metallic window frames bright red, added a candy-striped awning, daubed the back wall a vibrant teal and outfitted the small room in dark wooden shelves and Parisian-inspired sidewalk café tables. Then, they hung a sign reading Cohen’s Deli and opened for service with offerings including European cheeses for which they flew to the continent to bring them back every few weeks, personally curated Israeli wines unavailable elsewhere, home-cured olives, locally confected chocolates, their mom’s boyikos, a traditional Sephardi savory cheese pastry, homemade quiches – and, well, the neighborhood flocked.
“On the one hand, people are going to the big supermarkets,” Yehuda said, over coffee with The Media Line, explaining the gradual disappearance of small neighborhood groceries. “On the other hand, they want to shop in their own neighborhood. We know every single customer here by name, so it’s like family; everybody is welcome.”
Two months ago, he and his brother salvaged and repurposed another abandoned grocery shop in an adjacent neighborhood, to which they have applied the same formula – red stripes, teal backdrop, wood and small enamel-slicked tables.
“We don’t have music here,” Shimon said as he released a shower of finely minced parsley over an already mountainous, intricate salad. “We also don’t change the menu, except for the soup. We don’t want noise. Actually, listen: Can you hear? It’s the noise of the people who are here. I think this is the music people want to listen to.”
Without connection, at about the same time the Cohens opened their second place, the brothers Tahhan, Mo and Mick, opened their own bistro, the Sarwa Street Kitchen up the road from the Munas on Salah e-Din. You guessed it: It has taken the place of what was once their dad’s travel agency.
From the outside, Sarwa has the aspect of an unusually welcoming embassy, with their symbol, a pixilated emerald-green version of the tall tree that stands across the corner, hanging above the entrance like a shield.
Inside, the place is part bar, part restaurant, part upscale ashram, with one section of low tables and comfy futon-like seats gleaming in turquoise and purples, decorated with shelves of books that customers are welcome to take or contribute to, and showing off artifacts from the time of Tahhan père, a priceless camera, a beautiful typewriter.
The Tahhans’ philosophy involves openness and perfectionism.
Attentive service is available in numerous languages. The offerings, displayed on a chalkboard, include pizza made with imported mozzarella and Italian flour for the fine dough, hamburger beef ground in-house, organic vegetables for the vegan version of the local delicacy makluba, and personally selected wines and beers. Not to mention excellent coffee and Wi-Fi. Customers are welcome to stay for hours.
Ronny Kutzner, the German manager, pulls a golden cheesecake the size of a tray out of the oven. The aroma makes heads turn. Mo Tahhan says the idea behind his three-month-old coffee shop is to create a place “where everybody can come and eat healthy, light food that satisfies him, feel relaxed, feel that things are okay.”
From The Media Line’s visits at a few successive lunchtimes, the recipe seems to be working. The place is packed. On weekends, there’s live music.
For those seeking rest and relaxation at home, the Israeli-Palestinian duo of Rami Jubran and Rani Daas have opened R&R Wines and Spirits, which actually operates as a high-end deli for the takeaway crowd.
Their motto: “Expect More. Pay Less.” It lies on Yannai Street, and offers up goodies ranging from Turkish chestnuts to Swiss cheeses to Scotch whiskey.
Yannai Street? It was once a tiny half-oval of junkie old garages.
Amid the city’s chaos and sense of rudderless drift, a smiling band of brothers seems to have stepped in just in time, bringing renovation and caffeine to a population in need.