Tel Aviv restaurants take to streets to survive

Municipality expands limits on outdoor seating in bid to help eateries counter 60-70% drop in clientele.

The Hotel Montefiore restaurant has taken over an adjacent parking lot to create a COVID-19-friendly dining experience. (photo credit: RAYMOND CRYSTAL/THE MEDIA LINE)
The Hotel Montefiore restaurant has taken over an adjacent parking lot to create a COVID-19-friendly dining experience.
In a bid to counter a severe downturn caused by the coronavirus, several restaurants in Tel Aviv have taken over sidewalks, streets and even parking lots in order to expand their seating area while maintaining social distancing.
Eli Svoray, manager of the upscale French-Vietnamese restaurant Hotel Montefiore, says that moving the majority of his seating outdoors has been a major boon to business.
“We didn't know if people [would] really want to sit outside at the beginning, but in one day, this became the bigger part of the restaurant,” he said.
“We’re fully booked all the time,” Svoray added. “People were really happy to hear that we're not closing, and they come mostly to support us. They come back again and again.”
Hotel Montefiore, which is also a boutique hotel, recently took over an adjacent parking lot and transformed it into an inviting space that accommodates dozens of diners. The restaurant’s neighbors are letting it use the lot for free.
According to Svoray, restaurateurs need to show as much flexibility as possible to survive. The Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality apparently gets it.
“Under COVID-19, we understood that restaurants needed more space,” Ofir Cohen, director of the municipality’s transport, traffic and parking authority, told The Media Line. “We’re allocating them space on sidewalks. In some cases, we closed streets [to vehicular traffic].”
So far, 15 city blocks have been transformed. Some, such as Levinsky Street in south Tel Aviv, have been turned into pedestrian zones, with ample seating and umbrellas to block the hot afternoon sun.
While the project is temporary, Cohen says he believes it could be extended in September after the municipality reviews its success.
“We are making efforts to cosmetically improve public spaces,” he said, “so we put in some lights, chairs and, of course, shade, which is crucial in Israel’s summer.”
Cohen says he believes that hundreds of restaurants in the city have shut their doors – at least temporarily – due to the pandemic, but the municipality does not have exact figures.
On Vital Street, a popular nightlife destination in the Florentine neighborhood, the city has added numerous sidewalk-level platforms at the expense of parking to allow the many restaurants and bars move their clientele outdoors.
The owner of Mezcal, a favorite Mexican spot on Vital, says the initiative has made a big difference.
“This little wooden platform helps us a lot because people aren’t really sitting inside the restaurant anymore,” Ziv Erlich, Mezcal’s owner, told The Media Line. “If there’s an outdoor option, that’s where they’ll go.”
Almaz Yalma, the owner of a nearby Ethiopian vegan eatery named Almaz Mendel, agrees.
“The Tel Aviv municipality has done a lot,” she told The Media Line. “They added outdoor seating and cancelled fees for all the permits that we would have had to pay for before.”
Yalma, who opened her restaurant in October, say business was booming until the pandemic struck in March.
“Now we’re trying to survive,” she stated. “Business has gone down 60 or 70%. People aren’t going out…. Thankfully, we began doing deliveries, which are keeping us afloat.”
When Israel was in lockdown, restaurants were forced to shut their doors to in-house diners for months, being able to offer only takeout or delivery service. The latest health regulations allow only 20 diners indoors and 30 more outdoors, but with the number of coronavirus cases rapidly rising, the government is threatening to tighten restrictions.
While Mezcal’s Erlich is satisfied with the municipality’s response, he emphasizes that it is still far from business-as-usual and is critical of the government’s pandemic policies, claiming they are doing more damage than the virus.
“They’re making decisions without taking the economy into account,” he said.
“I have 30 employees, which is a lot for a small place,” he continued. “To lay off or furlough workers without being able to open the restaurant – in my opinion that’s much worse than opening with safety measures in place. There aren’t that many people that get infected in restaurants.”
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