It's Friday night in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and Shabazi Street is alive with people strolling to restaurants, cafés and the theater. Unlike its pious cousin down the road, Jerusalem, where most of the city shuts down on Friday nights for Shabbat service and dinner, this far more secular hub of Israel doesn't even heat up until about 9 p.m.
Every table at Dallal is filled as I enter the restaurant to meet friends. We dine on grilled calamari, eggplant salad with hot focaccia bread for scooping, babaganoosh and entrées of red snapper and osso bucco - all washed down with the country's fabulous lemonade, spiced with fresh mint leaves.
Like most of Neve Tzedek, Dallal has a SoHo-like appeal, with its exposed pipe and stucco walls. Nestled behind the large hotels that line the beaches of the Mediterranean, Neve Tzedek was one of Tel Aviv's first communities, established when settlers left the ancient port city of Jaffa just up the road and built Lebanese-style houses with rounded windows and interior courtyards along the narrow streets. Gentrified in the late 1980s, it's now a thriving center of shopping, food and culture, highlighted by the Susan Dallal Cultural Center, a modern complex of dance and theater pavilions connected by outdoor courtyards.
After dinner, I weave through the people leaving the night's performance and stroll into the Dallal courtyard, under the palm trees and over the dropped grapefruit. Looking up, it's hard not to spot the latest high-rise condominiums and the cranes that are ubiquitous in this city. Indeed, as Tel Aviv celebrates its 100th birthday in 2009, new construction is everywhere, including designs by brand-name architects and developers - Philippe Starck, I. M. Pei, Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Libeskind and Donald Trump. They ride the coattails of the German-Jewish architects who moved to Tel Aviv in the 1930s to escape persecution and ended up creating the world's largest collection of Bauhaus architecture, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The city is planning many festivities for the centennial celebration: an Alexander Calder retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Milan La Scala Opera performance of Verdi's Requiem in Yarkon Park and numerous free rock concerts and performances by the Israel Philharmonic under the helm of Zubin Mehta. But the best way to appreciate the Modernist splendor is simply to walk through the neighborhoods.
On a bright day, I strut down the boardwalk along the beach past joggers, bikers, and kids climbing the jungle gym at a playground, then head inland toward the city center. As I merge with strollers onto the wide, leafy boulevards of Ben Zion and Rothschild streets, the Bauhaus buildings that earned Tel Aviv the moniker the White City start to appear. The three- and four-story apartments with rounded corners, balconies and flat roofs are simple, lacking the ostentatious showmanship of the competing Art Deco movement of the time. The buildings with their fresh white paint shine under the hot sun.
The Bauhaus architects first started to arrive on Israel's shores in the 1920s. The trickle became a mass exodus when Nazis shut down the German movement in 1933, and many of the founders, Erich Mendelsohn among them, set up shop in Tel Aviv. The result is some 4,000 structures influenced by Bauhaus architecture. Many of these dwellings fell into a state of disrepair in the 1970s but like the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek became gentrified a decade later and now are some of the most sought-after and expensive condos in Tel Aviv.
In the northern part of the city, the Tel Aviv Port has had a more recent renovation, replacing a dormant industrial area with cafés and restaurants in warehouses overlooking the water. Celebrity chefs Nobu and Joel Robuchon are both slated to open their latest outposts in this c orner of the Mediterranean, but in the meantime Mul Yam (facing the sea in Hebrew) is serving its innovative seafood to the masses. I make a Saturday night reservation far in advance and join the non-kosher sect in downing oysters on the half shell and chilled lobster salad before diving into my sea bass, so tender it falls off the fork. The prices are exorbitant - to be expected in a restaurant where most of the seafood arrives by plane - but worth the splurge for the tasty fare.
Far more affordable is the hummus I devour for Sunday lunch in Jaffa. If you want to taste one of the finest examples of this creamy concoction of pureed chick peas, follow the locals to Abu Hassan and plop yourself down on one of the plastic chairs. The dishes of hummus soon arrive, some topped with ful, warm, mashed fava beans. I like to spread chili sauce on my pita to spice it up.
Afterward, I stroll through the souk-like flea market, operating continuously since the 19th century. I barter with the stall owners over scarves, antique candle holders and a traveling chess set. The more observant Jews soon gather in one of the narrow aisles to recite the afternoon prayers. As I make my way up the hill to Old Jaffa, I hear the call of the muezzin from atop the 200-year-old Mahmudiya Mosque.
I can really feel the weight of history as I walk on the large cobblestones in Old Jaffa. After all, this was the biblical port that Jonah left before encountering the whale. At the Wishing Bridge, I honor the legend and touch my astrological sign, Leo, while facing the sea and making a wish. Then I mosey onward to the nearby sculpture depicting Jacob's dream, where I'm rewarded with an exquisite vista of the Mediterranean, the beach hotels and the tall buildings of downtown Tel Aviv. This cosmopolitan city might be celebrating its centennial, but if you include neighboring Jaffa in the mix, this is a region of ancient and new, Arab and Jewish traditions - a vibrant hub on the southern Mediterranean Sea.