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The Tel Aviv takeover

Expats from Israel's party city are opening restaurants in the German capital, bringing not just hummus, but a taste of the lifestyle.

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Felix Offermann and Shani Ahiel, the German-Israeli couple behind the Tel Aviv restaurant Yafo.

Expats from Israel’s party city are opening restaurants in the German capital, bringing not just hummus, but a taste of the lifestyle.

Aside from the beach and ever-present Israeli-Palestinian tension, Tel Aviv might as well be Berlin’s sister city: laid-back vibes, a young, creative population, widespread LGBTQ acceptance and legendary nightlife. Over the last 10 years, Berlin’s Israeli expat community (an estimated 30,000 at the moment, including many dual nationals with German or European passports) has strengthened that connection with Tel Aviv-style parties, like monthly hafla (an Arab word for “party”, also used in Israel) and Israeli Schlager nights. And then there are the city’s newest Israeli restaurants, which go beyond standard Middle Eastern fare to incorporate the way Tel Aviv residents actually eat. Opened in March 2016 in Mitte, Yafo is a loud and lively, cozy and informal bar and restaurant where patrons sip beer and dip into tasty hummus as DJs lay down Balkan-Oriental-Middle Eastern grooves. The tables are decorated with fruits and vegetables; a picture of coowner Shani Ahiel’s 106-year-old grandmother hangs in the back.

Six years ago, Israeli native Ahiel was working at the well-known restaurant Nanuchka when she met Felix Offermann, an artist and DJ from Wilmersdorf who was doing light installations in Tel Aviv at the time. In 2014 they moved to Berlin as a couple, in part to get away from the Gaza war. “The war did something really bad to me,” Ahiel says. “I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Every small noise got to me.”

While Berlin is a refuge for her, Ahiel was quick to pick up on the shortcomings of the city. “I felt like I was entering a big museum,” she says. “There are no emotions here. No noise,” adds Offermann. “In Tel Aviv, everyone is inside your head. ‘How much money do you make? How old are you? Who did you kiss last night?’ On the other hand, it brings people together. There’s no embarrassment in screaming at the top of your lungs, in crying.”

Their restaurant Yafo reflects a desire to transport a bit of the loud heartiness of Tel Aviv to Berlin, and also to fill a niche in the culinary landscape. “The food culture here is super-functional,” says Ahiel. “It’s like: ‘I’m hungry, so I go to eat’. For me at least, when I go to eat, it’s like, wow, I’m celebrating life.”

The idea was to reproduce Tel Aviv’s restaurant-bar culture, where drinking and eating are intertwined. “In Tel Aviv, wherever I go, there’s good food and there is always something to drink. And it’s never separated, really,” says Ahiel. Germans do enjoy a Brezel or Weisswurst with their beer every now and again, but that Mediterranean activity of ordering drinks and sharing small bites until the wee hours is relatively rare here.

At Yafo, the kitchen stays open until the last customer leaves, as late as 3am. Customers are encouraged to share plates and eat with their hands – a hard sell in germophobic Germany. “At the beginning, we’d give people a plate of olives when they walked in, and they didn’t eat them,” Ahiel recalls. “And then my German friend said, ‘Shani, you can’t serve olives without toothpicks because people won’t eat them with their hands.’”

A couple of highlights are the aubergine “that’s been treated like a baby”, bathed in olive oil from Israel and gently baked for two hours, and a whole roasted cauliflower, leaves intact, served with tahini sauce. There’s also hummus, of course, though at first Ahiel wasn’t sure whether to feature Israel’s best-known dish. “Actually, we had a really, really big war here because of hummus. The chef did not want to make it,” she recalls. In the end, Offermann convinced him. “I just wanted to have a place here – very selfishly – where I could eat and maintain the lifestyle I had in Tel Aviv, food-wise,” he says. “And hummus is a big part of it.”

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Benedict’s signature egg dish comes in six varieties, including smoked salmon.

Another part of that lifestyle is breakfast, which Tel Aviv residents can already eat round-the-clock thanks to the chain Benedict. Its first branch was opened downtown in 2006 by a pair of active night owls who were constantly missing their favourite meal. Six more Israeli locations followed, and at the end of October 2016, Benedict vice president Gilad Lipschitz and his partner Dror Pinto opened the restaurant’s first-ever international franchise here in Berlin. “This is not like a conventional restaurant,” says Lipschitz. “It’s a whole concept for people who really enjoy breakfast at all hours of the day.”

Well, not all hours… yet. Benedict is currently open from 7am to 11pm, with plans to start 24/7 service in March. (UPDATE: Benedict is now open 24/7 for breakfast here in Berlin). How breakfast-by-night will fare in a tranquil residential neighbourhood off Wilmersdorf’s Hohenzollerndamm remains to be seen. For now, they’re already a novelty for serving breakfast past Berlin’s informal 4pm brunch curfew. Their only competition, the 24-hour mainstay Schwarzes Café over on Kantstraße, doesn’t offer six different variations on Eggs Benedict, including one with a Sloppy Joe beef sauce in place of Hollandaise.

Like its Tel Aviv brethren, Benedict Berlin offers breakfast dishes from around the world for somewhat lofty prices (usually upwards of €15, including a mimosa or hot drink): the full English with beans, bangers, fried bread and kippers; the French croque Madame. There is a Russian-inspired dish called the “Tsar’s Delight” featuring smoked salmon, sour cream and a bit of caviar. And – especially for Berlin – there is the Eisbein Stulle, a pork sandwich with homemade sauerkraut on rye with poached eggs for €23.50.

There’s also a version of the classic Israeli breakfast: eggs served with tomato-cucumber salad, bread and various spreads.“Israel is a country of immigrants,” says Pinto. “There’s a great mix of a lot of influences from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, America and Russia. But the breakfast is truly the only thing that you can say is Israeli.”

Why Berlin? Lipschitz says, “Why not?” He and Pinto have already noted plenty of similarities between the two cities, especially in terms of “the gay vibe,” as Pinto puts it. “Tel Aviv’s in the middle of the Middle East, but you can walk and hold hands and kiss on the street and it’s okay.”

“Berlin is an amazing city, and it’s a city of breakfast lovers,”adds Lipschitz. “Also it’s round the clock. It’s a city that lives 24 hours. Like Tel Aviv.”

Yafo Gormannstr. 17, Mitte, Tue-Sun 12-3

Benedict Berlin Uhlandstr. 49, Wilmersdorf, daily 7-23