Tmol Shilshom, the Jerusalem restaurant beloved by writers, turns 30

There is something quintessentially Jerusalemite about Tmol Shilshom. As owner Dan Goldberg succinctly noted: “You have to make an effort to come here. You don’t just drop by.” That existential take alone conjures up something of the quotidian juggling act the average city dweller has to master in order to stay on an even financial and emotional keel.

Nestled in a dead-end alleyway tucked away behind the picturesque pedestrian thoroughfare of Nahalat Shiva – one of the city’s oldest extramural neighborhoods – your eyes might skate over the eatery’s unobtrusive sign off Yoel Moshe Salomon Street, yet you won’t know it’s there until see it. But it’s well worth the effort.

Tmol Shilshom is not just another café-cum-restaurant. You can’t miss that pervading sense as you climb the solid stonework stairs to a sort of patio area where, in suitable weather, one can dine and imbibe the feted Jerusalem “mountain air,” albeit seasoned with inescapable airborne city center particles, along with one’s vittles. But we’ll get to the – wonderful – comestibles anon.

There is a charm, a welcoming ambiance to the place, with its flagstone floors, tastefully painted walls, some with fetching stonework putting in decorative asides, and high ceiling with sloping flanks. It is airy, and the soft spring light eddies in through old paned windows. Fanciful decor adds to the vibe: a victrola, an indigenous rotary phone (“Kids have no idea what to do with it,” Goldberg wryly notes).

Tmol Shilshom has been around for 30 years. That’s three full decades of dogged survival through thick and thin and everything that local geopolitics and other trying logistics have chucked at it. Opened for business in 1994 by David Erhlich, it has since endured the Second Intifada, the protracted seismic disruption to downtown life vented by the seemingly never-ending work on the light rail, the COVID-19 shenanigans and, now, Oct. 7 and its ongoing spiritually and financially depressing aftermath.

The entrance to Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having weathered all those storms and, most tragically, Erhlich’s premature death in 2020 at the age of 60, Goldberg – who joined the venture in 1996 – is not about to let the milestone anniversary just pass by. “The apogee will be in July,” he says. 

Goldberg has some A-listers scribes, such as Etgar Keret and Eshkol Nevo, lined up to expound on their work and, no doubt, field questions from the audience, as well as some entertaining musical slots featuring the likes of acclaimed singer-songwriter Rona Keinan and merry old-time jazz combo Brasstet. (One hopes the jazzy doings will have a moment on Tmol Shilshom’s balcony, with its New Orleans flavor.)

Different café for a different Jerusalem

Anyone who has visited Tmol Shilshom will know something about its literary baggage. You can’t miss it. There are walls stacked with tomes of all ilks. And there is that evocative moniker, which comes from one of the best-known and best-loved novels by storied writer Shai Agnon that came out in 1945. 

“To begin with, the name was going to be Wooden Horse,” Goldberg chuckles. “Thirty years ago that sounded pretty cool.” Indeed, back then the cuisine scene in Jerusalem, and the country as a whole, was much less developed. “What did you have in those days? [Nationwide café chain] Kapulsky.”

“And Apropos,” Erica interjects. Point taken.

Luckily, someone intervened. “A good friend of David’s who worked for the radio called one day, just before the opening,” Goldberg recalls. Some literary inspiration was in the offing. “He told David to open up Chapter Nine of Agnon’s Tmol Shilshom,” he continues, before quoting from the Nobel laureate’s book, which is set in Nahalat Shiva. 

“The whole club comprises two rooms – one room for eating and drinking, and one room for reading. But no one takes care not to eat in the reading area, and no one is bothered about reading in the dining area. This one eats and reads, and that one reads and eats, one comes in and one leaves. That’s exactly Tmol Shilshom!” he exclaims. “You can take books and food and combine them in two spaces, and get people to sit down in front of writers. That is exactly what happens here.” 

Barry can testify to that, having attended a memorable literary evening with Yoram Kanyuk some years back, not long before the writer passed away. Wooden Horse, perhaps a more appropriate name for a British pub, was summarily assigned to the titular scrap heap. “It is a special name,” Goldberg asserts, a little superfluously.

Celebrated Nobel Prize-nominated poet Yehuda Amichai was the first to jump on the literary gig bandwagon at Tmol Shilshom. Not bad for starters. Orly Castel-Bloom, Batya Gur, Zeruya Shalev, and Meir Shalev also did turns there. 

“The armchair in the other room is where Amichai sat,” says Goldberg. “People would come to him to ask questions and just chat. He was very open and amenable to everyone. We call it the Amichai chair.”

A magnet for stellar members of the Israeli scriber community, “David Grossman and Amichai came here and didn’t ask to be paid,” Goldberg notes. Internationally renowned writer Amos Oz also put in regular appearances and did his bit. “We once had our own wine line. Amos Oz gave us a quote for the brand: ‘There is one place in Jerusalem you don’t need to shed blood over – Tmol Shilshom.’” That’s quite an accolade and a measure of the café’s standing in the upper echelons of the literary folk in this country.

Café couples

Goldberg regales us with all kinds of talk accrued over the past three decades. He positively beams and almost bursts with pride when he informs us that over 250 couples met here and went on to get hitched. “They met here on blind dates and later came to tell us they got married.” 

He didn’t want to keep those glad tiding to himself. “We made a book with pictures of some of them, and some of their stories,” he says, presenting us with copies of the heartwarming red-covered tome. 

“Naturally, three of the couples later got divorced,” he adds, somewhat tongue in cheek. That’s not a bad batting average by anyone’s standards, and the book is another way for Goldberg and the rest of the Tmol Shilshom crew to dispense the good word.

Goldberg exudes bonhomie and prizes his bond with Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem – despite his slightly sheepish confessions that he originally hails from Tel Aviv – and the public, who come for coffee, a bite and to soak up the gentle life-affirming vibes. As one elderly couple leaves, Goldberg takes the trouble to ask if they had a good time and thanked them for their custom. That did not come across as a plain old Machiavellian marketing ploy. The man clearly enjoys running the business.

Upgraded dining

While Tmol Shilshom had not been famed for its culinary offerings of late, the gastronomic tide seems to have turned. Our chatter was interrupted by the arrival of a right royal spread of delectable cuisine – courtesy of chef Noomi Giat, who spent some time in the Machneyuda group’s vegetarian restaurant Tzemach at the shuk. 

The dishes? Artfully presented, fresh, and diverse: roasted cabbage with olive oil, garlic, and thyme, served on a bed of tzatziki and herbs, topped with yogurt and roasted almonds; cheese tortellini in sage and honey-butter sauce with spinach; Caprese salad with olives sprinkled in for a Mideastern twist; andendive salad with citrus and fennel in a ginger and chili sauce with blue cheese.

While Barry struggled here in the past to meet his vegan dietary needs, they were now met with aplomb – savory dishes (such as aglio olio fettuccini with white wine and lemon zest, topped with breadcrumbs and gremolata) and irresistible desserts (like the “Jerusalem of Gold” chocolate dome on a crunchy nougat base) alike. Caramel-butter crack pie sent Erica merrily skipping down the path toward addiction. 

Unexpected windfall

Post brunch, Goldberg dug into his inexhaustible supply of related anecdotes and remembrances for our entertaining edification. He came up with a fun tale of how he and Ehrlich laid their hands on a sizable collection of books for the café’s then-bare shelves. 

Thirty years ago, Agnon’s oeuvre was in demand. “People read Agnon. They stole his books, too,” Goldberg laughs. “There were no secondhand books available. Books were very expensive, not like now. When I sit with groups who come here, I tell them some of the stories; there are loads of them.”

Ehrlich, a writer himself, was keen to add some corporeal substance to the venture’s literary aspirations. 

“We didn’t have money to buy lots of books,” Goldberg recalls. But help soon appeared over the horizon, from an unexpected and thoroughly risible source. 

“A widower calls us one day. His wife had died a couple of weeks earlier. He said: ‘My wife has died, thank God. [We snicker.] She has so many books at home. Please come and take them away. I don’t want to leave a trace of them here.’ We don’t dabble in family politics but we needed books, so we took them,” Goldberg smiles.

There was some more surprising added value to be had. 

“We started sifting through the books, and suddenly we found a $100 bill, and then another. We ended up with $1,800! We, of course – with great regret – gave the money to the widower. Mind you, he gave us $100. It transpired that she didn’t love him as much as he didn’t love her,” Goldberg laughs. “She hid the money in the only place she knew he wouldn’t look.” The ruse may have worked but, as has been noted on many an occasion, “You can’t take it with you.”

The atmosphere and the food captured our hearts and taste buds, and the demeanor of the staff we encountered was just as endearing. Goldberg’s enthusiasm and the pleasure he takes in running the café clearly rubs off and ripples. He tells us that as he was doing his bit ferrying soldiers to Gaza – he had earned himself a bus driver’s license while Tmol Shilshom was shut during the pandemic – the employees put together a Headstart campaign to keep the place afloat. 

“It was their initiative entirely,” Goldberg beams. “People don’t come to work here to make millions. I’m not rich, either. But they work here for a long time, and people who live here and have families stay in touch. We are a family.”

That is an alluring winning combo – a homey ambiance, books, literary evenings with some of the country’s most celebrated writers, music and great food delivered with charm – what more could you ask for? Tmol Shilshom is a bastion of the best Jerusalem has to offer, as delightful as it is unpretentious.

“If you moved it to Tel Aviv, it wouldn’t be so good,” Goldberg observes. That’s for sure.■