Israelis love meeting over a cup of coffee. Over the last 15 years, more and more chains have started offering first-rate java and cuisine. ISRAEL21c picks the 10 best.
Someone visiting cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa could be excused for thinking that the only thing Israelis do is sit at sidewalk cafés and drink coffee. It’s not true – they also eat the food at those cafés.
“Israelis love sitting, drinking coffee and talking,” explains Michael Reiner, a student of all things java and the CEO of Ava Coffee, one of the country’s leading coffee suppliers.
Whereas Israeli coffee drinkers once drank either botz, the dark, muddy Turkish coffee favored by Middle Eastern coffee drinkers for centuries — or, if you didn’t have the stomach for that, then nes, instant coffee with milk and sugar (a bastardization of the American Nescafé) — today the drink of choice is Tel Aviv cappuccino (café afuch), a frothy variation on the Italian classic.
“It’s becoming known abroad as the quintessential Israeli coffee,” says Nicole Fleisher, the administrator of the Israel Coffee Association, an organization formed by several of the leading coffee roasters and chains in the country to raise the level of coffee manufacturing and consumption and promote the industry.
“We have a high standard of coffee preparation in Israel, from the way it’s roasted and prepared until it arrives at the table. As a coffee drinker, I would say coffee in Israel is much better than it used to be.”
“The biggest increase in coffee consumption and in the quality and variety of coffee in Israel occurred mainly in the past decade – due to the proliferation of the ‘away from home’ market, encompassing espresso bars, restaurants and cafes,” says Ava’s Reiner.
While you can go to any street corner café today and get a great cup of coffee from any number of independent, family-run coffee shops, some establishments have raised the art of coffee culture in Israel to a new level. Here are the best of them.
1. Aroma Espresso Bar
Established in 1994, Aroma’s red-and-black signs are as ubiquitous as Dunkin’ Donuts signs in the United States, and the fare of Israel’s flagship coffee chain is just as dependable. You know what you’re going to get when you walk into one of Aroma’s 120 cafes in Israel: a wide selection of hot coffee-based drinks, the famous “ice Aroma” frozen coffee slush, and tasty sandwiches and salads.
The company opened its first branch abroad in 2006 in the heart of Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood and has since established dozens of cafes in the US and Europe. In June, the café chain opened its biggest ever store in Kiev, Ukraine, after winning the title of Kiev’s best coffee shop for the past two years.
Established in 1995 with the aim of bringing real Italian espresso bars to Israel, Arcaffe is more of an upscale Aroma. Its credo is the ability to serve Italian coffee, authentic French breads and pastries with American service standards.
Arcaffe’s growth rate is more cautious than Aroma’s, with 25 branches dotting the country in mostly high-tech centers and more affluent neighborhoods. But when someone suggests meeting at Arcaffe, you know you’re in for a quality experience.
3. Cup O’ Joe
Launched in 1996 in Tel Aviv by American immigrants David Klein and Dov Goldfarb, Cup O’ Joe is an Israeli success story. Today the chain featuring great food and gourmet coffee, including possibly the best mocha ice in the country, has more than 60 branches around the country, with 10 more scheduled to open this year.
In May, a subsidiary of the giant Israeli fuel company Delek Group acquired 50 percent of the company.
Perhaps the originator of modern coffee culture in Israel, Ilan Shenhav opened up his first coffee shop in Tel Aviv in 1994. The availability of more than 20 types of coffee, including those from Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Colombia and Ethiopia, began teaching Israelis what good coffee was, and opened the doors for the other chains that have followed.
There are now four Ilan’s coffee houses in the Tel Aviv area, all featuring ingredients that adhere to the international Fair Trade standard, which ensures a fair price to farmers in the countries producing the raw product. A selection of teas and tea blends, specialty sandwiches and desserts — including jocolada, a doughy cake that oozes melted white chocolate – is always on the menu.
5. Café Hillel
From humble beginnings, brothers Koby and Yossi Sherf opened the first Café Hillel on Jerusalem’s Hillel Street in 1998. Their concept was to create a cozy “Yerushalmi” relaxed atmosphere highlighted by world-class coffee and food. They clearly succeeded. Today, more than 25 Café Hillel branches are bringing that Jerusalem atmosphere to the rest of the country.
6. Café Neto
Founded in 1995 by Shlomo Avras and Haim Malka, Café Neto has become a favorite for coffee lovers in the center of the country. A dozen branches dot the landscape from Tel Aviv to Hod Hasharon to Ra’anana, with recent branches opened as gas station refreshment stops in Kiryat Gat and Dimona. Another top-quality place to refill the empty coffee cup.
7. Café Café
A relative upstart on the list, Café Cafe has made great strides since opening its first Tel Aviv branch in 2001. Today the café/restaurant has 105 branches around the country and in Europe.
Offering a more extensive food menu than most of its competitors, Café Café offers a relaxed, comfortable setting for its fare and confidently stands by its motto, “Take Your Time.”
8. Espresso Bar
On the other end of the café scale from Café Café, the Espresso Bar offers the boutique side of things, concentrating almost solely on … coffee. Established in 1992, making it maybe the oldest practitioner of modern coffee culture in the country, Espresso Bar was founded by four members of a family intent on replicating the coffee, atmosphere and design of an authentic Italian espresso bar. With seven locations today, they must have been on to something.
9. Coffee Shop
There may not be much to differentiate the Jerusalem-based Coffee Shops from the Aromas and Café Hillels that surround them, but the decade-old company with six branches has cemented a foothold on the coffee landscape of the capital with its consistently good drinks and extensive food menu. Significantly, this is the only coffee chain in the country with a branch at the Knesset, performing the patriotic duty of keeping our elected officials alert and well fed.
The only Haifa-based café on the list, Greg’s Café was founded in 1994 by an American ex-pat in the Carmel center of the port city. Since then, more than 50 branches have opened around the country with different menus in each, but all featuring the high-quality coffee one has come to expect.
Vogue magazine, in an article on weekends in Tel Aviv, singled out the café with the funny American name as the perfect place to unwind at the end of a day of shopping. There’s nothing funny, however, about the coffee. It’s top-notch.