Early-bird specials

A favorite haunt for six decades, a little sandwich place on Sheinkin Street may have to close shop.

Itzik and Ruti's sandwich (photo credit: ELIYAHU KAMISHER)
Itzik and Ruti's sandwich
(photo credit: ELIYAHU KAMISHER)
In the wee hours of the morning, while the moon is still high, Sheinkin Street in central Tel Aviv is deserted except for a few delivery truck drivers unloading crates of vegetables. But anyone wandering the street at 4 a.m. and looking for a place to eat might notice a little stir of life at 53 Sheinkin, where two cats wait outside and the faint sound of a radio emanates from an open door.
If you look inside, you’ll probably see a couple of taxi drivers, maybe a high-stakes poker player or some late-night clubbers. They are all there to finish their night – or start their morning – with a sandwich freshly prepared in the 60-year-old establishment that has stood the test of time. No matter how much Tel Aviv changes, it appears that people will always show up early for some good food at Itzik and Ruti’s sandwich shop (Sandwich Shel Itzik V’Ruti) because it typically sells out by 11 a.m.
“I’ve been here since I was eight and now I’m 68,” says Dudi Shahaf, who wakes up at 1:30 a.m. every weekday with his wife, Shuli, to run the establishment. “This place is special. It’s not like McDonald’s, where we give you a hamburger and say, ‘Get out.’ We have relationships with the customers.”
Dudi and Shuli took over the restaurant 17 years ago from Dudi’s parents, Itzik and Ruti. When Itzik died, the couple inherited the tiny sandwich shop and a loyal customer base. Every weekday, the couple arrives at 2:30 a.m. to prepare a simple selection of options: egg salad, tuna, fried zucchini salad, eggplant salad, shakshouka and a few other dishes, such as herring and cream cheese on Thursdays. The recipes, which Dudi keeps secret, are the same since Itzik immigrated from Poland, learned to cook in the army and opened the shop in 1957.
Dudi, a former photographer for the now defunct Davar newspaper, is stocky, wears glasses and has a full head of short gray hair. He loves to crack jokes with the customers. Shuli, a blonde former architect, is a bit more quiet.
“He does the talking, and I make sandwiches,” she says with a smile.
The two operate in cramped quarters behind a counter that is around one meter wide and five meters long. They work off each other like ballet dancers, always aware of the other’s movements, weaving through shmears of tehina (from Nablus) and dollops of spicy carrot salad.
In the wee hours, the pace of work is slow as a few night owls drift in. The radio tuned to 100 FM plays old-school pop music.
“I love the people at night,” says Shuli. “They are more relaxed.”
There is Tom (not his real name), who is getting his PhD in Hebrew literature but plays poker by night for thousands of shekels. He orders the Humpty Dumpty, a mixture of eggs and sausage.
“I used to live in the neighborhood and I would come here all the time,” he says. “But I still come after I moved because it’s always good.”
Dudi heads back and forth from the kitchen, making final food preparations, while Shuli slices rolls and fills them. A small sandwich costs NIS 15, a large one NIS 22 or NIS 23. At the customer’s request, Shuli adds slices of tomato, cucumber and pickle.
Once the sun rises, more customers start to fill the shop’s cramped space, eventually forming a line that streams out the door. The most popular item is the egg-salad sandwich, which goes well on the Israeli-style baguettes that are delivered fresh from a bakery in Bat Yam. Many customers seem to know their orders by heart: shashouka with tehina and some eggplant salad; tuna salad and spicy carrots with extra harif (ground chili paste).
At around 10:30 a.m., Shuli is scraping the bottom of the metal tins that contain the salads, and the bread is running low. Sometimes customers go to the bakery next door to get rolls if the shop runs out. At 11 a.m., some 120 sandwiches later, people pass by asking, “Is there anything left?”
Itzik and Ruti’s is technically open until noon, but people have started coming earlier and earlier because the shop usually runs out of food, Dudi says.
The unusual hours are deliberate. The couple could open from nine to five or hire someone to keep the store open longer, but Dudi says that would ruin the “concept.”
“It would not be the same, never ever,” he says with a post-work whiskey in hand. “Help from outside would spoil the concept. The atmosphere is special here.”
“We have relationships with everyone and their kids,” adds Shuli.
For the most part, the couple enjoy their work and life schedule, even though they can only go to weddings on the weekends, and their 7 p.m. bedtime overrides any opportunity for a weekday movie.
However, the concept that Itzik and Ruti’s is based on – fresh sandwiches, unusual hours and a familiar face – may not last much longer. Dudi says that according to municipality restrictions, the shop can only operate the way it does if a family member inherits it. However, none of the couple’s four children wants to take on the responsibility. A block away, Café Tamar, a historic haunt for politicians, leftists and artists, closed its doors in 2015 after the 90-year-old proprietor retired, and her children decided to close the café.
“It’s hard work. We are on our feet the whole time,” says Dudi. “And it’s not only the cooking and getting up early, it’s also the responsibility to the customers.”
The couple are looking into the possibility of someone taking their shop, recipes and all, and opening somewhere else, but no one has stepped up.
“I hope not to be the same as Tamar; but as far as I can see, nobody wants to take it seriously,” says Dudi, adding, “This place is not about getting rich.”