Emek Refaim adapts to Anglos' changing tastes

Gifelte fish in a humous joint? The restaurants offer an eclectic selection of dishes.

Although the name of the popular street Emek Refaim literally means "Valley of Ghosts," it is anything but. The main drag is just a few blocks long, but it boasts a high concentrations of cafes, restaurants and boutiques. The heart of the German Colony retains a homey, neighborhood feel, with upscale bakeries plying their wares next to stores selling household items and high-class eateries alongside fruit and vegetable vendors. Recently, restaurateurs and cafe owners have been making some changes that will further accommodate the area's large English-speaking, religious population and the more recent wave of French-speaking, religious immigrants. There are very few places open on Shabbat, and now the Cafe Aroma on Emek Refaim, which is often packed on Saturdays, is set to close and reopen in April as kosher, in a larger location. "We've been having problems with the neighbors complaining about the noise on Shabbat," explains owner Assaf Obsfeld. "We had a court case, and our rent was raised... Now Aroma can be kosher, and the new place is 50 percent bigger, plus there is parking and a separate area for the smoking section." Currently customers have to enter through the sealed-off smoking area before ordering or sitting in the non-smoking section. Several Aroma branches in Jerusalem have recently become kosher, as the company has finally received permission from the Jerusalem Rabbinate to do so. Obsfeld says he is not worried about competition from the branch of rival chain Cafe Hillel near the new location or about losing the revenue from Shabbat. "We are different from Hillel... Hillel is quiet, for studying or having a meeting. In Aroma you can grab a meal, sit for 15 minutes, or read a newspaper. Everything will be fine, [and now] we can rest on Shabbat." Hillel has also been making some changes. According to spokeswoman Lilach Rubin, over the past year Hillel has been paying special attention to the Anglo population at several of its locations, including three in Jerusalem: downtown on Rehov Hillel, in Beit Hakerem and, of course, on Emek Refaim. "In some branches, Anglos are the customers," she explains. "In the seasonal menu we are adding a whole-wheat croissant, special salads... for the winter we had a hot chocolate with marshmallow, which the Americans and Europeans really liked, and an 'Americanized' sahleb. We have a special menu planned for Pessah as well. We also have wireless Internet because we are aware that people come with their computers to work or for business. I think people like Hillel because it has an 'overseas' atmosphere. Our menus are in English also, and all our workers know English as well." Most restaurants on Emek Refaim have English menus and a staff who can communicate in English. Obsfeld, however, doesn't feel the need to alter his menu to cater specifically to the Anglo population. "Aroma has been on Emek Refaim for 10 years," he says. "We're part of the scene here and people like it." Not everyone is happy about the change, however. "I was very upset to learn that Aroma was moving and would be kosher," says Ronit Sela, who has lived in the area for nearly five years and often goes to Aroma on Saturday mornings. "I particularly don't understand why, because it is very crowded on Shabbat. It's upsetting, because the center of town is a bit far and it's a drag to get there. "Emek has always catered to the English-speaking population. But there is a feeling that there are more eating places and fast food places now. There is more English spoken on the street for sure, and security situation has improved and there are more tourists... but on Shabbat it's terrible." WHEN AROMA opened in 1998 it was greeted by haredim protesting its opening on Shabbat, and then Meretz counterprotests in its defense, creating a minor incident that highlighted the secular-religious divide in the city. Now with Aroma going kosher, the only cafe in the area that will be open on Shabbat is the one attached to the Lev Smadar Theater, on Rehov Lloyd George just off Emek Refaim. The new Aroma location, which formerly housed a branch of Burger Ranch, is on the corner of Rehov Azarya, where there is a very high concentration of restaurants and shops. The intersection has a parking area, which is often a big problem on Emek Refaim and makes the restaurants and businesses there a lot more accessible. "Now that Aroma is here, this is the new center of the German Colony," says Guy Amar, who owns Tal Bagels and Aldo, both directly across the street from the new Aroma and in the same building as La Boca, a six-month-old Latin-fusion restaurant which is also popular with Anglo diners. Aldo, which opened four months ago, offers all-natural, imported Italian sorbet, fresh Belgian waffles and a huge assortment of Max Brenner chocolates and treats. According to Amar, it is the first kosher Max Brenner location - the other outlets are in the center of the country and are open on Shabbat. "Our stuff is more expensive, but better; you feel the difference," explains Amar, who planned the Aldo menu with the Anglo population in mind. "We also changed the menu at Tal Bagels, and it's wonderful, it works." "This is the place," agrees Tomer Gamliel of Soya, a glatt kosher, pan-Asian noodle bar at the corner of Emek Refaim and Rahel Imenu which opened about a year ago. "The American public likes healthy food, and we have things like tofu, special sauces and a delivery service, which is very popular. Most restaurants here are kosher, so it's great... although rents are rising." Amar also admits that rents are rising in the area, but says that it is worth it because so many people come to eat on Emek Refaim. "Four years ago there was a drastic change," he recalls, "and three years from now it will be even more expensive, but that's Jerusalem." Around the corner from Soya is a branch of Marvad Haksamim, a venerable downtown institution that serves Middle Eastern food. Also open for about a year, the small and busy family-run restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating as well as a take-away window. According to manager Mor Yehezkel, it didn't have to change its menu that much because it is the only restaurant of its kind on the street. But it has begun to offer dishes that are clearly different from its usual humous - on Friday mornings it has traditional Jerusalem-style kugel, and is preparing a special Pessah menu that even includes gefilte fish. "We got so many requests to come here, from Americans, French and Israelis," he says. "It was a taste they lacked. There was junk here; pizza and burgers but no humous, no fresh pitot. It's going great; the public enjoys the style and the portions. I'd say about 50 percent of our customers speak English or French, and we get a lot of tourists too." DESPITE YEHEZKEL'S comments, there are many upmarket restaurants along the strip. One of them is Olive, which owner Rafi Nahum opened five years ago during the height of the intifada. "We were among the first trendy, kosher meat restaurants here, and people wondered why we opened during all the bombings," he says. "We were pioneers in a way." Nahum says that he has always been aware of the shifting population of the German Colony. "The idea is that we are making Israeli food, and I haven't made extreme changes to the menu. We have our basic selection, and then a large special menu based on what is in the shouk. I think the people who have come to live here, and the tourists too, want a touch of Israel. The Anglos and the French are a big part of our clientele - they eat early in the evening, but the Israelis eat late, so we get to serve both. "We don't make a lot of spicy food," he admits. "Especially for the Americans, if it is a little spicy they will return it. We make more salads, and we make kubbeh soup, which restaurants like Olive usually don't do, but they especially want it. But the Americans don't know what entrecote is, and the French are more sophisticated, so we make an entrecote burger to compromise." Nahum says he has always seen a balance on the street between fast-food, cafes and fine dining. One recent addition that aims to attract a similar clientele to Olive is seven-month-old Coolinary, a kosher eatery oriented toward meat and wine that boasts more than 1,000 bottles in its cellar. Opening a restaurant was a longtime dream of co-owner Yoni Harel. "Emek is a great street, and it's going fabulously," he says. "We have vintages no one else has, and in quantity. We have a wine evening every two weeks, and a lot of people come." His partner Yoni Levinger explains they took the tastes of Anglos into account when devising their menu, especially their wine list - they have only kosher, Israeli wines, which the largely religious and Zionist population appreciates. "Before you open a place, you have to check out the population," he says. "But they are only part of the equation, not the whole." The area around Coolinary has become wine central: Right next door is the brand-new Wine Bar in the Moshava, which opened two weeks ago and is an offshoot of neighboring Shachar's Wine Shop, a 12-year veteran of Emek Refaim. The Wine Bar serves salads, cheeses, fish and sandwiches, but the real point is the wine; it has more than 150 types and is only open after 5 p.m., except on Fridays when it is open in the afternoon before Shabbat. "It's just the beginning, but it's going well," says manager Shaul Elkana. He adds that Wine Bar is kosher without a certificate; the food is kosher and it is closed on Shabbat, but it sells non-kosher wine so it can't be certified. Shachar's Wine Shop is also closed on Shabbat but sells non-kosher wine. On Shabbat Emek Refaim is very quiet, but another new restaurant aims to fill in the gap: A branch of Iwos Meat Burger (whose original restaurant is downtown) opened up three weeks ago in a location that formerly was a non-kosher butcher. The street is known for an abundance of burger places, but Iwos hopes to stand out from the pack and it seems to be working - the only other burger place open on Shabbat is McDonald's. "We have our name and people know us - there isn't room to sit on Shabbat," explains owner Avi Ben David. "Our meat is kosher, but we have cheeseburgers... We make a quality hamburger, and we do it exactly how someone wants. There were a lot of requests for us to come to Emek Refaim, and you know what? Sometimes I see people with kippot eating here, even on Shabbat. "It's the Sheinkin of Tel Aviv in Jerusalem," he concludes, invoking an oft-made comparison. "And in the summer it will be even better."