One of the greatest thing about visiting Israel is the local cuisine. The produce somehow tastes better, the dairy products are amazing; and you just can’t beat the falafel, humus, and sabich.
Unfortunately for Celiacs and the gluten intolerant, Israeli’s also love to eat bread, pita, laffah, and more bread. In addition to these flour-heavy treats, the use of this consomme mix in cooking is prolific.
So, you must be diligent and persuasive. But know that there are, indeed, many gluten-free dining options in Tel Aviv and in Israel. Admittedly, having conversations with servers about gluten free requirements was not an easy task. I often felt attacked, and more often lectured. We were instructed that the kitchen was not a “laboratory environment,” and the Hebrew word for “liability” and “responsibility,” and their fear and unwillingness to take any on were often expressed. As someone who must be careful about avoiding gluten when dining out, it is easy to feel guilty, pressured, or hurt by these kinds of interactions. This was a common feeling in Israel, but I will admit that I have experienced similar in the United States as well.
Many of the Israeli restaurants we encountered seemed somewhat hysterical about the prospect of accommodating food sensitivities. It is my guess that this is a collective response to the sad story of an Israeli woman with a nut allergy who died in 2011 after eating at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Her server insisted that her dish was completely nut free and did not contain nutella (which it did).
If this theory is correct, it is unfortunate that instead of improving food prep practices or providing better training to servers, the industry has decided to fault and deny any “special-needs eaters.” I hope that the U.S., Israel, and other countries take these opportunities to improve their practices and understanding as opposed to responding aggressively and defensively. With gluten intolerance, Celiac disease, and food allergies on the rise, it is only a matter of time before restaurants will be forced to face these issues should they want to maintain their customer base.
Now that I have that off my chest, I can focus on the great restaurants and food we enjoyed!
Gold: The most memorable dining experience was at a restaurant called “Hadar Ha’ochel” (or “The Dining Hall”). It is located by the Tel Aviv Opera House. They take their inspiration from the Kibbutz Dining Halls where all meals are community events. Hadar Ha’Ochel is quite a bit more upscale than a cafeteria though! The food can compete with some of the best restaurants (that I’ve tried) in the U.S. The highlights of our meal were the Charred Eggplant, Calamari, Chicken Thighs, and the Bavarian Cream. The service was impeccable and the atmosphere is casual and lively (but you wouldn’t wear your beach or hiking clothes –most people were slightly dressed up). I highly recommend this restaurant, and I am happy to say that you will not find any of my service-related rants above at Hadar Ha’Ochel.
Silver: My greatest fear was to travel to Israel and not be able to have delicious falafel. Thankfully Hippo Falafel came to the rescue and it is the second most memorable meal(s) in Tel Aviv. Almost everything at Hippo is completely gluten free (minus the pita of course, but they have gluten free replacements). Furthermore, everything is organic and most (if not all) items are vegan. Even my co-diners who could care less about GF/vegan/vegetarian/organic thought the falafel was fantastic! Do not expect friendly service though, and make sure to have them use clean utensils!
Bronze: The Bronze medal goes to Mezze! Almost the entire menu is gluten free and vegan, and the food is good! Not as amazing as the Gold and Silver above, but still solid. And the service was very good which was much appreciated. After dinner, I recommend visiting the bar next door: Armadillo on Ahad Ha’am.
Mezze English Menu
Here are a few other places we visited:
Orna & Ella: Underwhelming. There is a lot of hype around Orna V’Ella in Tel Aviv, so it is easy to get your hopes your up. And their food is good but it just didn’t live up to our expectations. It was a bit bland and there were not very many GF or vegetarian menu items. The service was OK: the servers know the menu well and are helpful with GF needs. But they were very un-attentive. It took us nearly a half hour to get our bill. (Tip: make a reservation)
Idelson: You will find rude, unfriendly, and defensive servers here. I was lectured at Idelson, and the server made me feel really bad. Both he and I would have been quite happy to see me leave. Unfortunately, I was with a group. A local fellow diner managed to convince him to make me a simple omelette in a clean pan. It was the worst omelette I have had in a long time (maybe one made with a hefty dose of vindictiveness?). It was full of parsley (which I did not want or ask for). I hear that the non-GF food is good, but no one appreciated the rude servers!
Cafe Marco: There are many gluten free options at Cafe Marco. They have GF pasta and are very good about avoiding cross contamination (they know to use separate utensils and always use clean water for the GF pasta). The best find at Cafe Marco was their gluten free bread (with olive oil and salt of course). It was chewy and delicious. Aside from the bread, the rest of the food was mediocre but it was nice to have an easy place to eat. I recommend going to Cafe Marco for bread with olive oil and a glass of wine! Below is the black cat that greeted all of their guests.
Cafe Marco and their visiting cat who will ask for your leftovers
Iceberg: great gelato! Below is melon and coconut:
Cinematheque in Jerusalem: the location is beautiful with a great view of the old city (make sure to sit on the patio). We especially enjoyed the eggplant with tahini and the Belgian salad.
Etnachta: A nice corner spot for a good breakfast or coffee. They are cooperative (but not ecstatic) about GF needs. Options are limited.
Teva Castel: A great little natural grocery store with plenty of GF items to stock up on. I recommend the great gluten free pitas (frozen).
Cup ‘o’ Joe: They have nice gluten free bread and other GF snacks. Beware of the salad though –they use canned (!) olives. Urgh.
Here are a few good links:
The most useful restaurant list for Tel Aviv
Another good list
An article in Haaretz with some good tips
An article from Jerusalem Post
A Hebrew Restaurant Card
Another Hebrew Restaurant Card
Lastly, here is a piece of Austin, TX in Tel Aviv: