Take Five: Tel Aviv's Artsy Bars

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Take Five: Tel Aviv's Artsy Bars

Tel Aviv is not one of those cities that, at first glance, seems glamorous or pristine. But there’s something about that rawness, the whole gritty reality of its uncompromising realism, that makes Tel Aviv such an incredible place to visit—especially when the lights go out. Like all of Israel, there’s so much beneath the visible surface of this graffitied, chaotic, messy city: underground bars that aren’t labeled, DJs that hop from club to club unannounced, 5-star restaurants hidden on side streets and in alleys, elegant but aging Bauhaus-style houses next to the city’s trendiest farm-to-table restaurants. The place can be peeled back again, and again, and again—and you might never find the center.

It’s no surprise, then, that a company like Ido Weill’s Tel Aviv Nights has swooped in to help Tel Aviv’s visitors navigate their way through the city’s abundant layers once night falls. From fully-curated private tours to small group pub crawls, companies like this one are quickly becoming the safest and most efficient way to experience the best of the city’s bars, clubs, lounges, and all the rest of its infamous late-night hotspots.

Of course, there is something in this labyrinthine city for everyone. To prove that, we’ve prepared a list of five very different places that keep up with the city’s well-deserved reputation. Whether you spend the night on your own or with a guide, you’ll feel at home in a least one of the nightlife spots.

1. Moonshine

If you open the large steel door in the back of the fashionable Mitbach Layla, one of Tel Aviv’s brand-new rustic-style restaurants that will have you feeling like you’ve never left grandma’s farm (thanks to the hanging copper pots above the bar and the wooden kitchen utensils lining the walls), you’ll find yourself going down a flight of rickety stairs into a dimly-lit space no larger than a living room where the hottest drinks are inspired by one of America’s darkest times for drinkers. Opened in 2014, the eponymous Moonshine embraces the ambiance of the 1920s American speakeasy in everything from its wall décor of worn American flags and photos of turn-of-the-century New York to its eclectic selection of homemade moonshines in mason jars lining the wooden shelves on the walls. There’s a smooth, sophisticated energy in its structure, from the exposed industrial beams in the ceiling to the small round bistro tables topped with flickering candles inside wax-dripped mason jars to the soft music—usually a lusty set of jazz and American swing. Couples, friends, and small groups sit and sip from their glasses as they whisper over candlelight.

With competitive prices for most drinks (45-50 shekel), there’s plenty of reason to try at least a few of their fermented creations. We recommend the dark, sensual Tennessee B—a mix of corn moonshine, honey-flavored Jack Daniels, black raspberry and maple syrup—or the brightly flavored Speedy Gonzalez—a tequila-based concoction made with fresh ginger, chili peppers, oranges, and limes. Get there early, though, because there’s barely room for 20 in this city’s trendiest basement.

2. Rothschild 12

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Photo by Anatoly Michaello

A place like Rothschild 12 will soothe your inner indie soul, as on any given night you’ll find the place filled with twenty- and thirty-somethings—alternative hipsters in tight jeans and tattoos, uber-chic working professionals, and cleaned-up backpackers—packed into a dimly-lit room and swaying to either a singer-songwriter wielding an acoustic guitar or an indie rock band jamming to African drums and mandolins. It feels a little like being inside one of those indie movies that is so exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that it didn’t plan a thing—it just turned out perfectly haphazard.

Though it’s not necessarily a new space and is beloved by local artists and writers alike, Rothschild 12 has a well-deserved reputation as continually having a fresh, stylish vibe that makes its patrons feel like they’ve just discovered someplace new. Plus, because it’s hidden away from the major street of the same name, the bar’s entrance has plentiful outdoor benches and bistro tables next to an intricate trellis laced with vines. Once you go through the large glass doors, there’s a big open space for music and a long oblong-shaped bar rimmed with seats for the serious conversationalists who plan on staying put for a while. In essence, the ambiance of Rothschild 12 will have you sipping your Campari and passion fruit juice cocktail with equal parts hipster attitude and urban sophistication.

3. The Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar

The Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar (pictured at top) is a special place, because even though it’s only been open for two short years, Drinks International recently rated the chic bar tucked inside the Imperial Hotel as the best bar in all of the Middle East and Africa. Known around Tel Aviv as the “temple to the lost art of the cocktail,” The Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar is, much like its name suggests, a craft unto itself. The bartenders wear beards, bowties, and plaid shirts under suspenders; the customers vary in age, dress, language, nationality, and topic of conversation; and the décor is a mashup of industrial gray walls with mustard yellow accents and bamboo lamps hanging from the ceiling.

Imperial (as it’s known around town) was started by five veteran Israeli bartenders whose concept was to invent all the drinks they’d always wanted to serve. As such, their menu of drinks is just as interesting as the rest of the place. Be prepared to try creative concoctions like the Scottish Girl from Ipanema, described on their menu as “a distant memory of a Scottish red-headed lass on a Brazilian beach” and combining whiskey, passion fruit, coconut cream, almonds, and lime; or the Colonel Mustard, a completely unpredictable mix of gin, Campari, orange liqueur, pink grapefruit, mustard, and cinnamon syrup. Whatever your drink of choice, Imperial’s skilled bartenders will find some way to surprise you.

4. Nanuchka

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If the idea of a middle-aged man who slightly resembles Elvis and can be found singing familiar songs in his native Georgian language while dancing on a bar sounds intriguing, Nanuchka is probably the best place for you. This Georgian-style bar, with its walls covered in owner Nana Shrier’s favorite poetic verses, its deep-red satin drapes, and its eerily blood-red walls, serves up excellent concoctions using Israel’s tempting Arak liquor (try the Arak with lemonade and fresh mint) and homestyle Georgian fare. Last year, Nanuchka shocked the restaurant world when, a few months after Shrier became vegan, they eliminated all the meat, dairy, and eggs from her already-popular menu, so don’t expect any of the fantastic cheeses and meat dishes for which the nation is famous. Instead, expect delightfully fun and unexpected dishes like Lubyani, homemade pastries stuffed with red beans and topped with tahini.

Also, don’t let the slightly older crowd fool you. By 10 p.m., any number of women and men will have joined the night’s lounge singer on top of the bar and tables, swinging their arms, singing at the top of their lungs, and chugging local beer. Indeed, to really understand Nanuchka’s completely unconventional and highly unique vibe, just look at the Georgian proverb written at the top of their menu: Every meal begins with the right company and lots of drinks … the food comes second. As anyone who works there will tell you, there are no early mornings for the patrons who spend their nights here.

5. Aria

The Times of Israel calls Aria the “Temptress of Tel Aviv”—and for good reason. Though it’s only been open two years, this two-story bar-plus-restaurant has gained a devout following among the diner looking for solid fare and the discerning drinker looking for beautifully well-mixed cocktails. This two-part love story—upscale restaurant downstairs and European-style lounge bar upstairs—is the successful collaboration between chef Guy Gamzu and Middle East mixologist Custer Thompson. Attracting a demographic of smartly-dressed 30+ professionals and housed in a recently-restored historic building in the newly gentrified Florentin district on the outskirts of downtown Tel Aviv, Aria evokes both laid-back lounge and posh eatery without even an echo of superiority. The décor is elegant and minimalist, the cuisine solid and traditional, the beverages smart and attentive, and the clientele classy but unassuming.

Just like Aria’s dinner menu—which only features nine entrees, ranging from oxtail pasta to Nazareth-style lamb chops—the cocktail menu doesn’t thrive on revolutionary or unexpected flavor profiles. Instead, Aria’s mantra of simplicity and delicateness lives through Custer’s cocktails: simple twists to signature drinks. Try the Elderflower, a delightful mix of Bombay Sapphire shaken with freshly squeezed lemon juice, elderflower extract, and soda. Or, should you really want to experience Custer’s unparalleled mixology skills, try his renowned bloody mary—served with a side of bone marrow.

Kristin Winet is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. Her work, has been featured both online and in print, covers culture, cuisine, accommodations, and experiential travel.

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