Home away from home

At Tel Aviv’s Cafe Xoho the primary language is English, and the style and menu help new olim avoid culture shock in their new land.

Flavor of the month (photo credit: Courtesy)
Flavor of the month
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When you step into Cafe Xoho in the heart of Tel Aviv, you might be forgiven for thinking you had entered a trendy coffee shop in the heart of Manhattan, or even central London. English is the primary language in this cute little cafe, and everyone who walks through the door ends up speaking it, even the Israelis.
Xoli Ormut Durbin, the brains behind the cafe – which has been open for nearly two years – explains that she never intended for the place to become an Anglo hangout, “it just kind of happened.”
The 25-year-old Durbin, who grew up in Hong Kong, is a graphic designer by profession, but decided that working with people excited her more.
She studied in Australia, where she worked as a bartender and waitress while not in class, and soon realized that developing relationships with people and pursuing her passion for food was the direction in which she wanted to go.
“I was going to open a coffee shop in Australia,” she says, “but places like this exist everywhere there. Then when my parents told me they would be making aliya, I decided that I would open my coffee shop in Tel Aviv so I could be closer to them.”
Tel Aviv is famed for its distinct cafe culture, with nearly every street corner housing a coffee shop. Most are filled day and night with locals catching up on the weekly gossip or latest news. While most of these coffee shops have a “Tel Aviv atmosphere” – whether that means serving all-day Israeli breakfasts or staying open until the early hours of the morning – Cafe Xoho, located on Mapu Street, near the corner with Ben-Yehuda Street, bucks the trend. The menu is heavily influenced by American tastes, and Xoho provides a warm environment for those who miss a good old New York sandwich. The atmosphere is very relaxed, reminiscent of coffee shops found throughout Europe.
“I can see how people compare it to somewhere other than Israel, but I think what makes it work is the fact that we are bringing those outside elements to Tel Aviv,” says Durbin. “There are thousands of coffee shops in Tel Aviv that serve Israeli breakfasts, but we have salmon bagels instead.”
What makes Xoho unique is the fact that at any particular time, over 80 percent of the people sitting in the place will be English speakers, catching up on the latest English-speaking gossip.
“It really has become an Anglo hub. It’s not what I specifically planned for the place, but that’s what has happened because of the menu, the atmosphere, the art and the colors.”
Since opening a year and a half ago, the menu has changed more than six times; something that characterizes the dynamic and inventive vibe of the place. However, there are four dishes which have stayed on the menu since day one: salmon bagels, buffalo mozzarella sandwiches, homemade granola and tuna melts. All are dishes with a very strong American influence.
“I opened the cafe to create a home away from home,” Durbin explains. “I left a very good situation in Australia and it was very hard to make aliya. I have created this place that a lot of new olim have found, and [for them] it’s like being back home.”
Xoli is proud of the fact that people come to relax, work, sit and meet people. And a number of customers have become her friends. It’s reached the stage where there are customers who come in every day.
“If [the regulars] don’t come in one day, then they are sick,” she explains. “I know everyone’s order by heart. People come in the door and they don’t even need to order – and if for any reason they do change their order, we always go and confirm it.
“I love it here, and I really do feel at home” says Adam, 28, a regular customer at Xoho who immigrated from the US. “It’s hard moving to a different country, and although I want to integrate into Israeli society, I do miss my home comforts.”
He says it’s nice to feel a sense of community, especially when he is so far away from old friends and family.
She is quick to point out that she does speak Hebrew, and loves it when Israelis come in.
“Some of the Israelis, however, just don’t get it,” she says. “They ask questions like, ‘Where is the tehina, and why don’t you have humous?’ They just don’t understand.”
Even though there are the odd few who can’t come to terms with a meal without humous, many Israelis do understand about the cafe, and these are some of Durbin’s favorite customers.
“The Israelis end up speaking English when they are here,” she says. Even though all the staff speak enough Hebrew to communicate with the Israeli customers, the customers just find themselves naturally speaking English, almost like switching over into a different world.
“I can give them Hebrew menus, and they will still order in English,” she smiles.
The feeling of an Anglo bubble is reinforced by the mostly English-speaking staff.
“I never put up an ad saying I want only Anglos to work here; I think they come because they find a place where they belong, and also it’s fun,” she explains.
“My head chef doesn’t speak Hebrew and all the back-of-the-house system is in English, so if an Israeli works here, then their English has to be good.”
A few Israelis have worked at the cafe, but they clashed with other members of staff and didn’t fit into the general functioning of the place.
“There is something about the work environment; there are just different attitudes here. For example, telling your boss how she should run the place – that’s a very Israeli trait I have discovered,” she says.
Xoho is not just a place where Anglos can gather to sit and chat about the trials and tribulations of a new life in Israel. It was also opened to create a platform for art and music. There is always a display of art on the walls, changing every two months or so.
Although it is mainly students who take advantage of it, she invites people from all walks of life to display their work, free of charge. A self-confessed “repressed artist,” she is excited by the fact that she is able to put up other people’s art.
She is proud of what she has achieved, and of the creative atmosphere that stems from a young, vibrant customer base and staff.
“Most things here are very spontaneous and unplanned; I let everyone be as creative as possible,” she says. “In the kitchen, I don’t tell them what to do. I just provide the ingredients; they create the most amazing specials.
Looking to the future, she is very optimistic, but is not interested in creating a cafe chain. She wants to maintain Xoho’s individual character that has made it so popular over the short time it has been open. She is, however, open to the idea of creating a new brand with a different name and a different concept using the skills and contacts she has collected from being in the business.
Cafe Xoho, 18 Mapu Street, corner Ben-Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv. Kosher. Tel. 057-942-8318, 072- 249-5497.