Changes in store on Emek Refaim

One of Jerusalem’s most beloved and fashionable streets seems to have fallen on hard times, with restaurants closing, storefronts empty and tourists going elsewhere.

'Take Me Home' restaurant (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
'Take Me Home' restaurant
Emek Refaim, in the heart of the German Colony, is quite simply one of Jerusalem’s most beautiful avenues. Lined with charming verandas and rambling villas, the storied thoroughfare where German Templers once dwelled is home to cafes, sushi and takeout places, jewelry boutiques, small groceries and a Steimatzky bookstore – where, as the American model, you can even sit and read a spell.
As such, “Emek” has long been known as a tourist hotspot and hangout.
Visit on a Friday, with families and people of all ages – many of them Anglos who have made aliya or are visiting – roaming around, having coffee or brunch, doing errands and getting ready for Shabbat, and nothing seems amiss.
Emek Refaim has its traditional festive feel.
However, look a little closer and it becomes clear that the area seems to have fallen on complicated, changing times.
“For rent” signs dot the street; storefronts stand empty as yet another dining establishment has closed, gone for good or decamped to another locale in the capital. New places open with fanfare and close just as quickly; the turnover is at times dizzying.
While eateries such as Caffit and Burgers Bar remain popular, and niche shops like Barbara Shaw for quirky gifts are doing well, restaurants such as Luciana (its Mamilla Mall location is still open) and Hamoshava 54 (its city center location has also closed) are no more. And though the restaurant business is notoriously tough, even Swan Gym is a distant memory.
Has Emek Refaim “lost its mojo”? TAKE ME HOME restaurant and takeout, on Rahel Imeinu Street perpendicular to Emek Refaim, epitomizes this shift.
In business for 30 years, first in the next-door location that now houses Marzipan bakery, then on Katamon’s Hapalmah Street (as Grill Plus), it opened a new branch in the area one month ago.
In fact, in the five years since this reporter made aliya, this bright spot with a garden has changed hands at least four times – with incarnations including Pituim, the Village Green (which changed owners and moved to a location farther down Emek Refaim, itself once Apple Pizza), Morgens and From Gaza to Berlin.
Take Me Home’s efficient young manager, Adi Levy, a daughter of the owners, explains that it functions as a workers’ restaurant during the day, with a reasonable business lunch featuring a diverse menu, and as a takeout place on Fridays. Having been in business for years, Levy explains, they have had time to build up a solid customer base – confirmed by the active foot traffic I saw in the short time we spoke – loyal to their food. (If the mushroom kubbeh I sampled is any indication, their fare is certainly tasty.) Yet it is this strong clientele and fare that lend Take Me Home the confidence to open in this location and enable businesses such as the neighboring Marzipan to continue to thrive, with people clamoring for their gooey rugelach.
What about other businesses – why are they suffering? I pose this question to an eatery owner who asks not to be named. He answers without hesitation. “It is Mayor Nir Barkat’s fault and that of his municipality,” he says emphatically. “They have invested a lot in new places like the First Station complex, with its cycling and walking paths and parking lots; and Mamilla Mall, where you get two hours of free parking.
“At the same time, not only is the municipality not helping us with our limited parking situation or putting in bike paths, but city inspectors constantly give out parking tickets, driving people away.”
Marvad Haksamim owner Mor Yehezkel confirms this, noting that now “is not a good time for the restaurant business on Emek Refaim. It’s still possible to be successful, but not like it was.
“Selena, Joy, Pini’s Kitchen, Holy Bagel, Pizza Italia…” he says, naming eateries that have closed in the last few years, going on to list at least 10 more – stretching from Emek Refaim’s start near Liberty Bell Park, all the way down to its end, where it meets Pierre Koenig Street.
Known for its Middle Eastern comfort food, his restaurant is also undergoing changes, having moved from its large location on the corner of the Rahel Imeinu and Emek Refaim intersection to a small storefront a few doors down.
In the German Colony, Marvad Haksamim now offers just takeout – a product that is still doing well here; the compact store is also doing a brisk business when I visit.
It will continue to peddle its traditional sit-down and catering services, as well as takeout, when it expands soon to a roomier, “more nostalgic” location at 16 King George Avenue in the city center.
Yehezkel blames the surplus of dining establishments in the capital – pointing to the new Cinema City complex, as well as the First Station and Mamilla Mall – for the decline in business, making the area’s high rents unsustainable. The city center is now a more affordable financial option, he says.
HOW DO potential customers perceive Emek Refaim’s altering landscape? Stuart Schnee, who made aliya 25 years ago, with 21 of those years lived in Jerusalem, attributes it to a changing downtown.
During the second intifada that began in 2000 and the accompanying assaults on the city center, he says, people were frightened away from traditional tourist spots and went to Emek Refaim as an alternative, frequenting restaurants such as Norman’s steakhouse (which closed in 2008 after 12 years on the street).
Now the security barrier is preventing terrorist attacks; furthermore, with the light rail finally completed, the downtown area has been revitalized, emanating an almost European feel, and the people have returned.
Others say the street lacks an anchoring business such as a supermarket that would make them go there on a regular basis, which the newly expanded Hadar Mall has in spades – especially in the much buzzed-about, Costcolike Osher Ad. While Emek Refaim’s Super Hamoshava market stocks hard-to-find American products, with its smaller scale and much higher prices, it can hardly hold a candle to a Shufersal Deal or Rami Levy.
They also note that the First Station and Mamilla are pedestrian complexes where parents are happy to bring their children, who can run around freely; Emek Refaim is less kid-friendly, bisected with heavy traffic.
Karen Brunwasser, a Jerusalem resident for 14 years, also notes the appeal of other tourist centers but offers a different perspective. She says succinctly: “I think it’s because the street became boring, lacking in interesting content, at a time when many other more interesting places have developed around town.
“Emek Refaim has become too bland, frumpy, touristy,” she continues. “It doesn’t have the personality of Derech Beit Lehem, the contemporary feel of the First Station or the edginess of Mahaneh Yehuda. It has mostly mediocre culinary offerings.
“It generally rests on the fact that it is sandwiched between wealthy neighborhoods [in the German Colony, abutting Katamon, Rehavia, Baka and Talbiyeh] and doesn’t have to try hard enough to be excellent.”
Chaim Weissmann, an American who counts India and Pakistan as former places of residence, recently made aliya to the Holy City. He says he also forgoes Emek Refaim in favor of “less touristy, neighborhood places filled with locals – like Duvshanit bakery on Hapalmah Street.”
Marc Neugroschel, a German who has just bought an apartment in the German Colony, moving from Abu Tor, is sitting in Emek Refaim’s Café Ben-Ami on a Friday, having just finished breakfast. He says he came to try out a convenient, local place, but is open in his criticism of its shortcomings.
“This coffee shop, like the majority of the coffee shops on this street, is not up to par. We were waiting half an hour for the food and it was not great, yet the prices are the same as everywhere else.
“Because of the location, people will still come, but the quality, service and value for the money are not worth it. I’d much rather have gone to the felafel place up the street,” he concludes.
Dana, a Canadian who asked that her last name not be used, is sitting in an adjacent booth, reading the paper over a leisurely meal. She agrees that in this café, business is still proceeding at a brisk clip but says that in her view, the changes are a result of demographic shifts – giving the area more of a religious, frumpy (to echo Brunwasser) vibe.
“I made aliya to Jerusalem years ago but had to go back to Montreal in 2008 because of personal reasons. But I always come back for visits; I love Israel,” she says.
“I’m liberal, Left-leaning, into social justice. When I started coming to Emek Refaim 20 years ago, there was a huge difference. It was less religious. While of course there were kosher places to eat, even mehadrin, there were others that were open on Shabbat, offering secular people an alternative.
“There was a more artsy, open, liberal feel to it, with a wider variety of dress; tourists were more interested in coming.
“Now you see them at Mamilla.”
Indeed, others I speak with confirm that the Smadar Cinema, still open on Shabbat, is seen as a last bastion of a more secular feel on the street; Roza restaurant still has some of the nightlife vibe of the long-gone but not forgotten tapas bars.
What brought about the increased homogeneity? Simple economics, Dana posits. Due to its popularity, the area – like much of greater Jerusalem – became ever more expensive, with little to no lower-priced housing.
“Young people and young couples with children, especially Israelis, have been increasingly priced out. If they don’t have wealthy parents to help them, they have to go to Ma’aleh Adumim or Efrat instead,” she says.
This vacuum has largely been filled by older, observant, well-to-do Anglos.
Dana illustrates this in a telling anecdote: “When I left Israel in 2008, the Janglo list-serve was filled with tons of amazing deals on furniture due to people clearing out and leaving the area, who couldn’t maintain their standard of living and/or wanted a more traditional or secular lifestyle. I originally bought my bedroom set from a couple who went back to Hungary, of all places! They just couldn’t hack it,” she recounts.
She criticizes the municipality, which grants permits to luxury housing developers instead of prioritizing affordable housing, reiterating her love for the country and city, and her hope that Emek Refaim will recoup the “young, vibrant, dynamic air” it once had.
SKYROCKETING RENTS, with landlords seeking to cash in on what is still seen as prime real estate, continue to have an impact. One such victim, not that long ago, was Tal Bagels.
The landlord, seeing its wild popularity among Anglos working from home on weekdays and brunching olim on weekends – who appreciated the American-style menu and service – got greedy. When the time came for a new lease, he raised the rent to untenable levels, and Tal Bagels was forced to close.
While Bagel Café opened in its place, the magical atmosphere had dissipated. Though some clientele has remained, many dispersed, lamenting the loss of their old haunt.
Israel’s security situation, which intensified this summer during Operation Protective Edge, also cannot be overlooked. Jerusalem’s particular circumstances of late play an additional role; tensions running high on the Temple Mount, alongside Palestinian attacks on city light rail stations, have sparked discussions among many of a third intifada.
All this hurts tourism and business on Emek Refaim – a state of affairs confirmed by many of the street’s business owners, such as the manager of a branch of the Sabon bath and body chain. While the store has continued to operate for about eight years and has built up a loyal clientele, “We do see a decrease every time there is a terrorist attack.”
The owner of Tomas Masaryk brings us back full circle to the municipality. A stylishly dressed Israeli woman with a warm smile, she explains that she and her co-owners are “true Jerusalemites” who bought the established café from its previous owners a year and a half ago. This was due to an appreciation for the area’s residents, and a desire to keep a neighborhood institution – where MKs have been known to lunch – going.
The municipality, she maintains, is not as committed. “They used to put on two to three festivals here a year, which drew many new customers. But their focus is now on the First Station and Mamilla, and Emek Refaim only gets one annual festival. We have really felt the difference, with a lot fewer customers over the past year,” she says.
Moreover, in a crushing blow, “the municipality recently assessed many spots on this street with a special tax in the thousands of shekels, on top of the already steep arnona [municipal tax]. Businesses just can’t manage. We’re working to oppose it, but in the meantime places like Pini’s Kitchen have been forced to close.
“With fewer restaurants and less variety, people have even less reason to come to Emek Refaim.”
But they will continue to fight for their beloved street and café, she stresses.
MASARYK’S OWNERS are not alone in their battle. The Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim movement, dedicated to cleaning up the capital and keeping secular Jerusalemites and young families from leaving the city, has also made Emek Refaim’s revival a priority.
Movement co-founder and city councilman Ofer Berkovich states that his organization thinks very highly of the area and its value to Jerusalem. He blames the current situation on poor city planning, which has created a glut of restaurants that no urban center could support.
“The First Station is great, but Cinema City was too much,” he says.
With the void left by the municipality, Hitorerut has swung into action, making grants available to small area businesses and creating initiatives such as the recent well-attended Pantomime Festival, designed to generate excitement and bring people in.
Masaryk’s owner praises Hitorerut’s efforts, saying the Pantomime Festival was a hit. She adds the caveat, however, that the movement doesn’t have the same PR reach as the municipality, which, with its huge network and bus advertisements, can draw larger volumes of people.
But all is not lost, and restaurants continue to fling open their doors on Emek Refaim. In a recent flurry of activity, the openings of Burrito King, Coney Island Knish and a branch of Cinnabon were greeted with particular anticipation, as they proffer distinctive products hard to find elsewhere in the city.
Yet the prevailing wisdom holds: Owners must have a good business plan; they must know their clientele and location before they open; and the quality of their products must not drop off after the grand opening. And depending on the level of their kashrut certification, they must know how to navigate the respective authorities.
Pompidou owner Aviran Noema agrees. A sharp-eyed Israeli, he did his research before opening his mehadrin dairy café two years ago, creating an upscale atmosphere with flavorsome food that Michael Porcelain, an American who made aliya five years ago, cites as one of the street’s few notable spots, successful because it puts out a good product.
Noema has felt the drop in tourism, saying the majority of his business is done on the weekends with set customers. Though he cautions that this is not a good time to open a restaurant here, he feels Emek Refaim is on an upswing. “Things are starting to get better; the area is slowly getting back to itself.”
Foccacia Bar’s owner, Erez Marder, agrees. Opening two years ago, the restaurant has depended on local residents who, he enthuses, are good people he enjoys serving. The meat restaurant in Caffit’s original location (which in a very typical twist, moved across the street) has built up a solid local clientele that is growing all the time, with people dining in the pleasant garden, taking advantage of the reasonable wine prices and patronizing the extensive, well-regarded Friday takeout selection.
The owner of Ness Patisserie also thinks the time is right to take a chance on Emek Refaim. Having developed in its small store an excellent reputation for delicious French baked goods, it is expanding its repertoire and will soon open a dairy café in Marvad Haksamim’s old location.
“We’re not worried,” confides a bakery employee. “If you give people something good, they will come.”