Whenever I give someone directions, they will always include a description of the places to eat along the way — I map areas in my mind by the workers’ restaurants nearby.
Sometimes I pass one I’m unfamiliar with and instantly feel called to try it. The first clue for identifying a good workers’ restaurant is a long line outside. The next is the expression of indifference on the faces of those in the queue — regulars who already know the menu well, trust that the food will be just as good as it always is, and that there will be no surprises. A worker’s restaurant might update its prices every few years, but it will never change the size of its servings — you certainly won’t leave hungry. These restaurants are vital to their local community, often being woven into local folklore.
From a Bukharian bakery that opens at 2:30 a.m. on Fridays to a spot that serves North African fare in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, these are some of my favorites.
When you visit a market abroad, forget all about Instagram — just ask one of the workers where they like to eat. Next to every branded place you see, there are food stands for local workers, and they can be half the price. Roni Bsarim (“Roni Meats”) at the Carmel Market is one of them. The restaurant, which has been around for more than 20 years, has changed locations in the market a few times, but today is on its main drag. Roni Levi buys the meat next door from one of the market’s best butchers and turns it into kebabs that are tucked into a classic pita, and served alongside every possible salad and some fried potatoes for one of the best prices in Tel Aviv.
Roni Bsarim, 7 HaCarmel St., The Carmel Market, Tel Aviv. Tel: 050-9768590. Hours: Sun-Thurs 8 a.m.- 4 p.m., Fri 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
Etzel Pnina (The Green Restaurant)
The road to moshav Petahya is lined with vineyards and Pnina Uzan’s Green Restaurant used to peek out from behind the vines. Sometimes I’d park my taxi next to a truck, a tractor loaded with grapes, and the luxury car of some unknown magnate.
Pnina recently moved her restaurant to her house’s backyard on the moshav and the same loyal clientele followed. The restaurant hasn’t changed much — the menu still changes daily based on whatever inspires Pnina. She’s the one who calls the shots here and all you have to do is ask: “What’s cookin’?” Whether it’s beef patties or excellent schnitzel, Pnina puts her soul into every dish, which you can get on a plate or in a baguette with some homemade salads. Pnina makes sure no one leaves hungry.
Etzel Pnina (The Green Restaurant), Hashaked Meshek 60, moshav Petahya. Tel: 08-9230777. Hours: Sun-Thurs 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Saada – A Home for Food
The first time I saw Saada, I thought it was a glitch in the matrix: whoever thought of opening a restaurant on a traffic circle in the middle of Pardes Hanna-Karkur in a building that looks like a convenience store? Well, this is just where Oren Farchi decided to open Saada — a real workers’ restaurant with just a few seats inside and a few more outside.
There’s no fast food here, only slow-cooked North African dishes that require a day to prepare. The best part of eating here is when you spot the row of pots waiting behind the counter with their covers a bit to the side so you can catch a glimpse inside. First, you select rice or couscous as your base, and then continue on to various meat dishes like Libyan mafrum (vegetables stuffed with meat and cooked in a tomato sauce) or Moroccan kefta. Deciding what to order is hard, but there’s no wrong choice here.
Saada — A Home for Good, on the corner of Derech HaBanim and HaNadiv Road, Pardes Hanna-Karkur. Tel: 04-6265533. Hours: Sun-Thurs 10:30 a.m.–3:30 pm., Fri 9:30 a.m.–1:30 p.m.
HaMitbach Shel Iris (Iris’s Kitchen)
Once, a customer got out of my taxi and walked straight into Iris’s Kitchen in Ramat Gan. I followed him. “What are you going to eat there?” I asked. “A bowl of soup,” he said. I was hooked.
Iris Bracha operates a small restaurant: a kitchen and a few tables, that’s all, but the spot has plenty of soul. The neighborhood kids come here almost every day for a bowl of soup and a thick slice of bread. There’s bean soup, harira, lentil soup, and more. Prepare to be hooked after your first visit — I certainly was.
Iris’s Kitchen, 76 Hertzel St., Ramat Gan. Tel: 03-6701266. Hours: Sun-Thurs 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Fri 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Moti Shakshuka was recommended to me by a driver who’s much more hardcore than I am — a semi-trailer driver who has been reading my recommendations for years. He looked straight into my eyes and explained how to get there: the restaurant is located one turn after the Eshel HaNasi interchange, heading north.
As I reached the counter, a truck driver came in and began roughly chopping vegetables for a salad. Another customer left his plate to help himself to some more lemonade from the dispenser. I realized I was the new guy and smiled. “With or without merguez?” Moti Shalem asked. I decided to go for the full experience, and stood off to the side to wait for my order. Moti fried the sausages in a pan, and then added them to the top of the shakshuka along with a huge heap of finely chopped cabbage salad. Each shakshuka is different, and Moti’s has plenty of cumin and a layer of hot sauce.
It’s all sandwiched into a long and large baguette. This huge sandwich is real drivers’ food. If the Michelin guide were invented in Israel, Moti would definitely have been included.
Moti Shakshuka, close to the Eshel HaNasi Interchange. Tel: 052-2393869. Hours: Sun-Thurs 6:00 a.m.–4:00 pm
Lior Ha-Iraqi (Bonjour restaurant)
About 30 years ago, Lior Yechezkel’s father had opened a tiny spot tucked between a warehouse and a factory in Petah Tikva called Bonjour. He made full use of the small space, serving a rich menu of beef and chicken meatballs, schnitzel, and sabich — to name just a few dishes from the overloaded counter. With time, Lior joined the family business, and now his silhouette, complete with a thick beard, appears on the sign, as well as his nickname: Lior the Iraqi.
Everyday, starting at 6 a.m., Lior stuffs baguettes and pitas, welcoming his regulars and drivers who stop by for a quick and satisfying bite. With Lior, everything goes: it’s perfectly fine to fill half your baguette with schnitzel and the other with chicken meatballs. A sliding door opens right to the counter and the kitchen takes up most of the restaurant. So order, step outside, and wait for your name to be called. When your food is ready, take it to go or grab one of the few seats open outside.
Lior Ha-Iraqi (Bonjour restaurant), 10 Imber St., Petah Tikva. Tel: 052-8563638. Hours: Sun-Thurs 6 a.m.-3 p.m.
This Bucharian bread bakery in Tel Aviv has no door — only a small service window for handing off loaves and savory pies to enthusiastic customers. (You can’t typically go inside, but if you ask nicely and promise not to touch anything inside, they might let you have a look.) Some of the customers come to take food home, and others, like me, eat on the spot. I stop my cab and run up to the small window to stand in line, waiting for a steaming, goshtgizhda pie fresh from the oven. Here, it’s stuffed with beef, a little salt, and a lot of black pepper. The soft meat, flavored with good chunks of fat, seems to melt right into the dough. It’s steaming hot even on the coldest day of the year — yes, you will burn your tongue. The trick is to take a bite on the side and let some of the steam out first. One pie will fill you up, you don’t need anything else.
Lechem Buchari, 11 Shazar St., Tel Aviv. Tel: 03-5183924. Hours: Mon-Thurs 6 a.m.-7 p.m., Fri 2 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Etzel Kochi (Kochi’s Place)
A worker’s restaurant doesn’t have to stand out. Kochi Azulay’s restaurant is just like that, a small place hiding on the main road connecting Moshav Zeitan with the other moshavim of the area. You’ll find it just before the roundabout, standing right on the road — in this agricultural area, pavements are redundant.
On my first visit, I came here expecting the common schnitzel baguette, nothing more. But, as I poked my head under the awning that hides the bustling kitchen, I was pleasantly surprised to see pots of homemade food. Kochi’s plates are always brimming with rice or potatoes and meat that’s well-seasoned to bring out its full potential. After all, workers’ kitchens never use top-quality cuts — the secret is in the right seasoning, and at Kochi’s place, it’s always right. You can sit down to eat, or grab a baguette if you’re in a rush.
Etzel Kochi, Hashlosha109 , Moshav Zeitan Tel: 054-3021933 Hours: Sun-Thurs 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., Fri 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.