Understanding Jerusalem’s Restaurant Culture

Tables line up against the edge of a balcony with a view of the city lights spreading to the horizon.

Rooftop dining at the Notre Dame Hotel. Photo © Elaine, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Dining out in Jerusalem is a fun diversion and there are some genuinely wonderful gastronomic experiences to be had, but deciphering the unique rules of Jerusalem restaurants is a challenge. The following is a basic primer.

  • Closed for Shabbat: This means several things, chief among them that they are probably kosher (but not always) and close sometime on Friday afternoon anywhere between 3pm-5pm and usually reopen on Saturday evening around 8:30pm. The times vary a bit by season, but Shabbat is generally from sundown on Friday evening until three stars are out on Saturday evening.
  • Check: You will never, ever get your bill in a restaurant in Jerusalem, or Israel for that matter, until you ask for it.
  • Coffee Shops: Due to the strength of several national chain cafés that also serve as coffee shops, the presence of simple coffee shops or espresso stands is non-existent. You can get a good latte (or cappuccino as locals call them) almost anywhere, though. Ironically, the best coffee is not served in the chain cafés.
  • Kosher: The kosher system dictates keeping dairy and meat separate, and kosher restaurants serve either milk or meat (which includes fish). Kosher certification is officially issued and has degrees of strictness. This means you cannot get a cappuccino in a kosher meat restaurant.
  • Restrooms: A cup with handles next to the restaurant’s bathroom sink is for religious hand washing (not drinking) and means you are in a kosher establishment. Some places will have a special sink with a cup in the restaurant itself.
  • Security: Watch out for the security fee that some places tack onto your bill. It is only a few shekels, but you can ask to have it removed if you spot the number of diners times a small shekel amount equals the fee. It is easy to spot even if you can’t read Hebrew.
  • Service: It is not unusual to have no specified waiter or waitress, especially if you are in a busy place. Feel free call on any staff member you see.
  • Tipping: The tip is almost never included in the bill, and there will be a large note in English on the bottom of your bill indicating that. 10-15 percent is a standard tip.
  • Water: There is a major shortage of water in this part of the world, so you have to request tap water and usually you have to request refills as well. Try asking for a bottle of tap water.
  • Wi-Fi: Almost every single restaurant and coffee shop in Jerusalem has free wireless Internet, just ask.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Jerusalem & the Holy Land.

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