I’m going to let you in on a secret: we had not one, but two itineraries for our recent trip to Israel.
One, of course, was the official daily trip itinerary provided to us by Honeymoon Israel for all nine days of our trip to the Holy Land. But we had a second list, one that resided in the shadows and was only good for the hours of 9 PM to 2 AM: where to drink the best cocktails in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
And so in between visits to holy sites and various outdoor activities, we set out to find the answer to one of our burning questions for the trip: Which Israeli city makes better cocktails, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
First, let me get some things out of the way: Yes, I know that we only visited one cocktail spot in each city (the education researcher in me is balking at this tiny sample size). Yes, I know that we didn’t get to Imperial Craft in Tel Aviv, which was ranked the #17 best bar in the world in 2015 (according to the World’s 50 Best Bars). And yes, I know that you can’t judge a bar based on sampling a few drinks on one balmy spring evening.
In any case, though, we’re going to share with you our experiences at two cocktail bars in Israel–Gatsby in Jerusalem and Bellboy in Tel Aviv–and with any luck, you’ll get a sense of how creative and inventive bars in this Middle Eastern country can actually be.
Cocktail Bar #1: Gatsby
18 Hillel Street, Jerusalem
Tel: +972-054-814-7143 (reservations recommended)
Sunday to Saturday, 6 pm to 3 am
While researching cocktail bars in Jerusalem prior to our trip, Gatsby came up over and over again, so I immediately put it at the top of our list. Imagine my pleasant surprise when our group leader, Chloe, picked this as the spot for our first foray into Jerusalem’s nightlife!
Gatsby is the kind of speakeasy that would be right at home in New York City: it’s got the Roaring Twenties theme, a variety of specialty craft cocktails on the menu, and mixologists dazzling you with their theatrical way of making drinks.
Similar to Le Boudoir in Brooklyn, we entered through a faux bookcase into the dimly lit bar on the other side. Swing music played in the background; a smoky haze transported us to the age of free-wheeling flappers and sultry jazz musicians.
Once inside, we immediately turned our attention to the drink menu. Mr. Five O’Clock ordered the Oriental Express, a mixture of Tanqueray gin, chili jam, honey, lime, sweet sherry and sake. Being the huge egg white fan that I am, I opted for the Mama Cass, which had gin, egg whites, honey, lemon, Pernod wash, and Becherovka. Our two drinks cost 94 NIS total, which is roughly $24.42 in terms of U.S. dollars. Quite a steal compared to Manhattan!
Other members in our group ordered more traditional drinks, such as an old fashioned or a mai tai. Everyone was able to find a drink that suited their preferences, from the spirit forward to fruity and refreshing.
The mixologists executed their drinks with purpose and with flair, and their attention to detail was obvious as we continued to observe from a distance. In fact, several members of our group paused to watch them make this fiery concoction, seen below.
Overall, Gatsby was a crowd pleaser, with its extensive range of both classic and more creative libations. The only downside was that it was quite smoky in the back patio, which caused some discomfort for a few of our group members (who ultimately wound up leaving early). That aside, this bar would definitely make Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald feel right at home.
Drinks – Taste: 9/10
Drinks – Presentation: 8/10
Cocktail Bar #2: Bellboy
Hotel B, 14 Berdichevsky St, Tel Aviv
Tel: +972-3-728-9213 (reservations recommended)
Sunday to Saturday, 6 pm to late
As soon as we learned that we had gotten into Honeymoon Israel’s May 2016 trip, I e-mailed my friend Jackie to set up a cocktail night in Tel Aviv. (After all, we owed it to her for telling me about Honeymoon Israel during my Pink Pangea travel writing retreat.) Jackie had recently relocated to Tel Aviv, so we decided to follow the “locals know best” rule and let her recommend a hot cocktail spot.
Perhaps because Jackie was already waiting for us when we arrived, it wasn’t difficult at all to find our way into the bar. No hidden entrances for us this time!
Though Bellboy doesn’t have a sliding bookshelf for an entrance, it too has a long, classic bar in the middle of the room and a 1920s vibe. That, however, may be where the similarities end. Bellboy, for example, had a huge pumpkin at one end of the room; the menu humorously instructed patrons that they should not lick the pumpkins.
One wonders what must have prompted such a rule…
This sense of humor permeated the space, from the door to the kitchen to the… er, surprising bathrooms. (Suffice it to say that you’ll just have to see it to believe it.)
For our first round of drinks, Mr. Five O’Clock ordered the Toronto #2 (58 NIS or roughly $15 USD), which included Bulleit Bourbon, Bellboy Pecan Maple Syrup, Branca Menta, and Bellboy Cherry Amaro. I chose the Viking Club (78 NIS or roughly $20 USD), which consisted of Bellboy Akvavit, Wild Berry Tea, Rooibos, Amaretto, and Birch Tree Soda.
The Viking Club was served in its own ivory-colored horn with a special strap that I had to wear as I drank the delicious libation. I’m not going to lie, I felt a bit like Tyrion from Game of Thrones drinking from it–which in hindsight doesn’t make any sense, since he wasn’t a Viking like Leif Erikson. But still, I felt like a boss while drinking it. (Fair warning: if you order it later on in the night, make sure to hold on tightly or else it will spill all over you!).
For our second round, we asked our server to give us the “most visually creative cocktail” and the “tastiest cocktail.” Challenge accepted, she said, and returned quickly with two libations.
For our first request, she provided us with the Keep Clean #2 (58 NIS; Bellboy Vodka, Bellboy Citrus Liquor, Apricot Brandy, Bellboy Carob Syrup, Bellboy Soap). The drink-in-a-bathtub concept resulted in some chuckles at our table; the rubber duckie was a nice touch.
For our second request, we received Rings a Bell (54 NIS), which included Sauvignon Blanc, Gin, Campari, Lychee Liquor, Grapefruit, Cocoa Balsamic, Passion Fruit, and Sichuan Chocolate. The drink was fruitier than I expected, and the chocolate provided a good contrast to the tropical fruit.
Also worth mentioning at this point is the food, which is definitely worth getting–you can make a whole dinner out of this experience if desired. We especially liked the beef tartare dish and assorted dumplings; even the bread made me salivate.
Drinks – Taste: 8/10
Drinks – Presentation: 9.5/10
The jury’s out on this one. I personally preferred Bellboy in Tel Aviv, as I’m into the more modern and wacky cocktails with bells and whistles. Mr. Five O’Clock’s vote went to Gatsby; he thought the flavors of their cocktails were a little more complex and interesting, though he definitely appreciated the presentation of Bellboy’s cocktails.
Whether you prefer a quirkier or more traditional vibe for your cocktail bars, however, one thing’s for certain: Israel is a country to watch when it comes to up-and-coming bars.