I’m sitting on the wrap-around wooden porch overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a glass of bourbon in my hand, fresh fruit on my plate, watching the sunset. It’s like I’ve gone into a time machine and come out in a bygone era of colonial bon vivant pilgrims and Middle Eastern hospitality of the 19th century.
I’m on a little, tucked away hill between ancient Jaffa and the sprawling city of Tel Aviv, which arguably is the most happening place to be in the Levant today. It’s blessed with awesome beaches and combines vibe and food and, if you choose, luxury.
The Drisco is luxury, old-fashioned luxury. Our fabulous suite is lined with French doors, all opening to the balcony, fine linen curtains gently blowing in the wind; five-bladed fans circling above, a fully stocked (complimentary) bar, a massive bed with a leather chaise longue at its feet, and, my favorite – a Carrera marble bathroom with a power shower and huge tub with possibly the best view in the city.
We are in the American Colony, a little-known one-street neighborhood of anachronistic wooden houses manufactured in Maine just after the American Civil War and assembled here by a group of American Evangelical pilgrims in 1866.
Two brothers, George and John Drisco, set up a 12-room hotel hoping to cash in on the burgeoning tourism trade and be the first destination for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.
The Drisco brothers, the Germans and Mark Twain
In the spring of 1867, America’s favorite everyman Mark Twain wrapped up his journey to the Promised Land in the basement of this hotel where he penned his scathing travelogue The Innocents Abroad. The Drisco brothers sold the hotel to German Adventists, and the survivors of the American Colony joined Mark Twain on the steamer Quaker City back to the US.
The Germans expanded it to over 50 rooms, thriving during the Ottoman period and British Mandate, but it ultimately was abandoned for 50 years until meticulously restored and reopened in 2018.
The Drisco seems almost out of place in a city packed with glitzy hotels and mushrooming skyscrapers. We entered the lobby and stepped back in time into an alternate reality, close to the city’s modern beachfront but a world away from the crowded cluster of 1980s brute, mammoth hotel chains.
Tel Aviv is being hailed as a foodie destination, and hence, anyone dining at the George & John restaurant is in for a sumptuous treat. It’s one of the city’s most-loved, showcasing local contemporary haute-cuisine.
Before dinner we gather on the rooftop for wine and cheese, mingling with tourists and locals who have come to watch the sunset.
The affable and dapper hotel manager Hezi Talay greets us. He says about 75% of the guests are foreign tourists. “[They’re] people who don’t want to be in the big hotels, without all those groups and without loud children and people. They want to have the full attention and not be swallowed by the other crowds,” Talay says, adding that the Drisco prides itself on the personal touch.
“We have an average of three hotel employees per guest. We take care of the small things. We try to make the guests feel like they are our family members. There are lots of hotels here in Tel Aviv, like mushrooms after the rain, we say in Hebrew, and we like to make [guests] feel like they are coming to a special place.”
“We have an average of three hotel employees per guest. We take care of the small things. We try to make the guests feel like they are our family members. There are lots of hotels here in Tel Aviv, like mushrooms after the rain, we say in Hebrew, and we like to make [guests] feel like they are coming to a special place.”Hezi Talay
Down in George & John
Down in George & John is chef Tomer Tal, who has been named one of the most promising chefs in the country by the prestigious Gault & Millau guide.
Our table has a little lamp, which adds to the bygone flavor of the dining experience, which turns out to be not only incredibly delicious, but artistically beautiful.
It’s filled with young people, couples, and families in celebration, with low-key indie jazz whispering out of hidden speakers. The mirror wall makes it seem larger, larger than life. Of course, I order the American Colony cocktail (a cognac & Sazerac rye & bitters mix for the adventurous palate).
We enjoyed the charcoal-grilled asparagus starter topped with thistle cheese and za’atar as well as sea fish sashimi with roasted pumpkin cream and ginger. We also enjoyed the crystal shrimp ceviche with a unique geranium sauce and lime pearls. We saved room for the main course. My companion chose handmade tortellini stuffed with Pecorino with browned shallots butter and black garlic oil.
There were only three in the serving, but they exploded with flavor in your mouth. Three were plenty. I dove into the “double” lamb chops, aptly made since the choice cut was doubly thick, perfectly roasted on a charcoal grill and served with Egyptian onion stuffed with rice, herbs and tamarind.
And for dessert, we had a dish with a combo of pistachio chocolate ice cream topped with amaretto cherries and cashews, which we opted to take to the room to pair with Cognac from our private bar (all included).
One could head out to enjoy the Tel Aviv night scene. But the best part of staying at the Drisco is that after this sumptuous dinner, we just headed upstairs and enjoyed that satiated feeling, sipping a nightcap and finishing our dessert on the private terrace.
“People are looking for the best restaurants in Tel Aviv, and the George & John is one of the 50 best restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa,” hotel manager Talay says. “Because there is priority for the guests of the hotel to eat at the restaurant, so people like to book a room and also a package with the dinner and also with spa treatments.”
The breakfast spread is magnificent, but in this hotel, one can also order from their special menu. We sat on the patio. I chose the French toast and my companion had the eggs Benedict, with salads. My partner particularly enjoyed the roasted sweet potatoes with rock salt and goat cheese and vinaigrette dressing.
In the basement, there is a unique room with a long knights table for group entertainment. It’s behind the little Mark Twain Salon, first established in the 1920s, with historical frescoes.
The hotel today has 42 rooms, suites and deluxe rooms with or without a balcony; a small spa and bar and, of course, the restaurant.
There is valet parking and a 24-hour gym, but no pool. They also offer complimentary daily guided tours of the area. One nice touch is the ability to scan a PDF to get a list and descriptions of shops and sights in the vicinity of the hotel.
“We try to combine the neighborhood with the hotel. We just established a new PDF tour. People can explore the boutique bakeries and stores around us. And people like it. Especially the tourists. They look for local special things and not for just the tourist places,” says Talay.
If you are planning to tour around Tel Aviv and are just looking for a place to put your head, go someplace else. This is a place to savor. It has a great restaurant, a great location and a splendidly restored historic building.
The writer was a guest of the hotel.