Boutique hotel in Tel Aviv earns international acclaim

The rise of Tel Aviv’s Norman poses challenge for its general manager Yaron Liberman.

Norman hotel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Norman hotel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months into his reign a US president, astonishingly, before he ever had the chance to do anything, as if it was a prize for a promise to change the world. And so with the Norman Hotel in Tel Aviv. Less than a year after it opened its doors, the Norman was awarded the magnanimous prize of “best boutique hotel in the world,” not Tel Aviv, not Israel, not the Mediterranean, but the world.
“I was on vacation and I received a message and I wasn’t sure. Was this a mistake?” said general manager Yaron Liberman. “I didn’t know how to digest it. It took me about five minutes and then, ‘Wow, the pressure is on.’ And since then we have been fortunate to receive many other awards. And every award like that is more pressure – another 100 kilos on the back of the team because the expectations of the guests are much higher. Occupancy is very high. It is very difficult to get a room at the moment and at the same time it is not a cheap hotel to stay in. So all that creates a very, very high expectation which we must deliver. Not only in June in the high season, not only on Rosh Hashanah. It is 24 hours, seven days a week that you have to deliver the product and the service.”
So with this in mind I launched my stay. Has the Norman lived up to its reputation? There is no second chance of a first impression. Our doorman, appropriately named Dor, took my vehicle and whisked it away as we checked in. Just the fact that the hotel has parking has already put it above many others, including some five-star hotels in Tel Aviv which don’t provide that. (The bill hit us at checkout.)
First impression: Many staff are scurrying about all smiles and greetings, two at the reception, two at the door, two at the restaurant. A glass of slightly sparkling water is put in my hand as Maya behind the desk asks for my name. She checks the computer and unsuccessfully tries to hide a look of pain on her brow when she can’t find it on the reservation list. Then she realizes she’s on the wrong day.
“I nearly had a heart attack,” she says, to which my companion says that is no reason to have a heart attack.
“In this hotel it is. People are paying so much. You don’t want anything to go wrong,” she says.
The hotel is clipping along at full capacity. It is always full. We proceed to the Library Bar as they prepare our room.
It is a stunningly English yet very Israeli setting. Not Colonial, but a meticulously designed atmosphere and décor, visually and sensually of a bygone era. Big-band swing music from the bar to the rooms sets the tone. Propeller ceiling fans stir the perfect temperature. It is staunchly Israeli, from the art – such as the Dead Sea-encrusted violin by Sigalit Landau – to the photos in the hallways and epic poem on the walls of the inner lobby. It harks back to a bygone era of Paul Newman and Sophia Loren in the early 1960s when Hollywood filmed classics like Exodus and Judith in the fledging state. They stayed at the Dolphin House, Israel’s first five-star hotel, built in 1953 on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea near Nahariya by Norman Lourie, the namesake of this hotel.
IN THE four years it has been open, the Norman has attracted a cool list of celebrities such as Jerry Seinfeld, Sean Penn and Drew Brees, the phenomenal New Orleans Saints quarterback. But discretion is key here and the hotel keeps its guest list very close to its chest.
While reclining on leather-buttoned stools at the Pewter Bar, I check out an impressive cocktail list, and equally impressive selections of whiskeys and bourbons, cognacs, vodkas and other spirits.
My companion orders a Caesar salad that comes with crisp lettuce smothered in shredded Parmesan cheese and loads of fresh bacon, a menu inspired by Chef Barak Aharoni.
One of Norman’s jewels is its rooftop “infinity pool” and deck. We don our robes and head for the roof. The hotel was built in a way that access to the pool requires climbing a flight of stairs. It is really two buildings built in the Roaring Twenties that have been joined together, but it makes for staggered steps. One elevator has three floors and the other, seven. A maze of hallways connect original buildings linked by a contemporary glass atrium.
The roof has a vibe that is busy and full. It’s hard to find a chair, but the pool boy makes an effort to accommodate, fetching towels and rounding up chairs as the beautiful people pose and sun bathe. The pool is open until 7 p.m. What a pity there is no night swimming, which I am told is due to lighting issues and neighbors.
The hotel style is Côte d’Azur meets Art Deco and recreates the retro-luxury of the mid-20th century: dial radios, analogue bathroom scales and swing music.
The hotel has just 50 rooms, including 20 suites and, of course, two penthouses, each one over 200 square meters with a 60-meter terrace.
Our room was airy with floor-to-ceiling glass windows opened to a secluded garden in the heart of Tel Aviv – quite private in the middle of the city.
The Alena Restaurant was recently awarded “Best restaurant in a hotel” by Time Out Tel Aviv, and in 2017 the Norman won the magazine’s “Best wine list in Israel.”
My companion and I had gone on a sunset sail so we were unable to make it to the Dinings Japanese restaurant on the third floor before the last table reservation at 10 p.m. However, we managed to sit on the rooftop deck (access through the Wellness Club & Spa) to relax before turning in.
The pool opens early and we enjoyed a brisk swim and descended to a magnificent breakfast. Breakfasts at top Israeli hotels tend to have ubiquitous, massive spreads, inviting gluttony.
Here it is elegant. Fresh-baked croissants and rolls, etc., a few select cheeses and salads and fruits, champagne, of course, but the jewels are the ordered dishes. I had Eggs Benedict cooked to perfection with runny poached eggs on muffin and bacon. My companion had French toast with Bananas Foster and raspberry sauce.
The comfortable thing about this hotel is the dress code. There are folks in smart suits, but they are hard to spot among people who appear very relaxed in their shorts and T-shirts, summer dresses and vacationing spirit. And if Barack Obama were here, he’d probably be wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, sans Nobel Prize. Here at the Norman the awards keep stacking up, and rightly so.
Room prices start around $659 a night for a deluxe room midweek and include breakfast, with 17% VAT added to the bill of Israeli passport-holders.
Pillow talk from the GM
The ‘Post’ talks with the Israeli-born, Swiss-trained general manager of the Norman Hotel in Tel Aviv
What was the hardest part of starting the hotel?
Selecting the right people is the biggest challenge running this hotel. Building the hotel was very, very difficult. It was a long process, designing it, putting the whole package together. And these are the tangible things. But the hardest thing is the people. There are no stores to find a nice receptionist or a positive waiter. You really need to meet all the people and look into their eyes and see if they fit, or can fit, the hotel.
How do you want your guests to feel?
Excited to come back. Most of our guests are return guests. More than 60%. I want them to feel that they are welcomed back to the hotel. I don’t want to use the cliché that they feel like home, because it is not their home but a hotel. But the feeling is hospitality. I am always going to use the intangible, so that the people greet them nicely, they open the door for them, they say hello. They ask them about their trip and say “goodbye.” If we can achieve that we are by far better than anyone else.
Who are the clientele?
The biggest market to Israel is the American market. The second is the English, then the French and the Israelis. We were very surprised. We have many Australian guests coming to the Norman. So I really try to focus on those markets.
The Israelis are our second or third market. Many of them live across the street. They take a little trolley and they come for the night. The minute you enter the steps of the Norman you feel like you are abroad. It’s the architecture, the art, the uniform of the staff, it’s the energy. It’s something in the walls. It’s the soul that the owner gave to the hotel. They come and they don’t leave.
There’s a new word. It’s called “staycation.” You don’t need to schlep to the airport and fly, I don’t know where, or drive two hours to the North or South. You come across the street, you stay, enjoy the pool. You get a massage. You eat in one of our great restaurants. You have a drink at the Library Bar and of course stay in a very pampering room.
What’s been the benefit of being a boutique hotel?
First of all the size. Fifty rooms [makes this] a very tangible hotel. We have all the facilities that a big hotel has. We have two restaurants, the bar, the rooftop pool, the wellness center with a gym and a treatment room. So we have all the facilities that the big hotels have but the service is very hands-on. We are a very “huggy” team here. We hug our guests when they come, especially when they come back.
Why the name “Norman”?
The owner of the hotel decided to call it after his dad, Norman Lourie. He was a great Zionist who helped the country. In the early 1950s, he came to Israel and loved the North and opened the Dolphin House in Shavei Zion. If I could ask for one thing, it would be to have one glass of wine on the bar with Norman. He was an hotelier, old school, loved people. I feel his spirit. It is in the air. He’s with us all the time. He is watching us. My office has a photo of him so when I meet every employee I say, ‘We cannot disappoint him.’