Why Tel Aviv is Hollywood's New Billion-Dollar Sin City
Madonna has a $20M pad there, Barbra Streisand has taken 100 rooms and Gerard Butler has been bailed out by pals in the new trendy getaway that has been called the "sexiest city in the world."
It may be smack-dab in the middle of the Holy Land, but over the last decade Tel Aviv has unveiled itself as a kind of glamorous new Sin City. The tantalizing beaches, cafes and nightlife, along with its unique mix of the Middle East with a Mediterranean party atmosphere, ensure the lifestyle-loving capital continues to buzz with energy. It couldn't be more contrary with the image of many of the uninitiated: "People think we're still riding on camels!" one local told THR. "They also think we're always at war — and it's not safe here." Yet upon arrival, one finds a bustling urban respite with all the things sophisticated seekers are hoping to find, and more.
Why the exodus to the Israeli coastal city? "Tel Aviv is the sexiest city in the world!" declares native Motty Reif, a producer and founder of Tel Aviv Fashion Week (its fourth was held in October) who's also resided in Los Angeles. But it's not just the sultry heat that Hollywood embraces. Tel Aviv's thriving TV and film business compels the entertainment industry to visit frequently — to schmooze and to buy. "Tel Aviv's now a world capital," says producer Howard Rosenman, who's been spending winter holidays there (it's a 15-hour direct flight from L.A.) for more than a decade, as well as developing a number of homegrown projects. World-traveling director Brett Ratner calls it "the most cosmopolitan place I've ever been. A scene of cosmic proportions." Producer Ben Silverman loved it so much he got married there five years ago. "It's the utmost free open society – Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Jews... Even the Jews are from all different countries," he says. Showtime CEO David Nevins went for the network's Homeland shoot but returns because he is in awe of it: "The place is a real 20th century city — ancient and modern."
New world, indeed. Real estate prices have skyrocketed — Madonna reportedly paid $20 million dollars for a pad in a new Richard Meier-designed, all-white luxury tower. "Tel Aviv is a very good investment: the economy's stable, and real estate prices have literally doubled in five years," says Israeli-born producer Avi Lerner. And the area dubbed "Silicon Wadi" (the Arabic word for "valley") has emerged as a digital mecca: $1.7 billion of funding was tracked in 2014 alone.
So how did this long-distance love affair between industry honchos and Tel Aviv — a connection that's spawned such shows as In Treatment, Homeland, Dig and Tyrant — begin? CAA television co-head Adam Berkowitz, current chairman of the entertainment division of L.A.'s Jewish Federation, attributes a lot of it to 14 years of Federation trips for entertainment execs (including Discovery's Marc Graboff, CBS' Nina Tassler and WME's Nancy Josephson, who led one in 2011) to meet local writers and directors — and have meetings with the likes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres.
And it's not just the town's execs who have embraced Tel Aviv — stars often go for work, then return for pleasure: Gerard Butler stays with friends there, as does Ryan Gosling (pals had to bail him out when his car stalled on the road to Jerusalem). Hometown girl Natalie Portman gets her facials at Yullia salon, while Rihanna has enjoyed a green mud bath at the Dead Sea. Barbra Streisand takes 100 rooms at The Dan, and Jerry Seinfeld's set to perform two Christmas week shows there.
"Tel Aviv is a special place," declares Israeli actress-producer Noa Tishby, who has been credited with starting the feeding frenzy for Israeli formats when she brought BeTipul to HBO, and In Treatment was spawned. "So much joie de vivre, so much emotion — and Hollywood's really tapped into that."
There are no big waves along the 9-mile shore of Tel Aviv, but pristine beaches stretch from Herzliya to Jaffa. And unlike L.A., the water's warm and everyone swims — there's even a religious beach for the ultra-Orthodox. Make sure you take the long promenade walk from Tel Aviv to Jaffa, but be prepared: There isn't much sunblock in this year-round temperate climate — Israelis aren't afraid of the sun (or aging apparently). Haim and Cheryl Saban favor the Hilton beach, near Hayarkon park. "We walk the whole line — there are unobstructed views of the sea," says Haim. Says Saban, “The whole coastline is beautifully arranged for pedestrians, you can walk south all the way to the old port of Jaffa – and stop in Neve Tzedek along the way – Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood, with lots of artisans making jewelry. You’re not allowed to own property on the beach in Israel, it’s for the public. And there are wonderful cafes to eat and drink in all along the way if you want to make a day of it. You get the view, and the cultural stimulation.” L.A. producer Lati Grobman favors Banana Beach, near South Tel Aviv: "You go on Friday nights and have your watermelon and cheese and beer outdoors. You meet your friends there, and life is good."
Tel Aviv's bar scene has a legendary party-hard reputation, considered the equal of New York, London and Hong Kong. "I don't go out to clubs in New York and L.A. — I'm too old for that now," laughs Ratner. "But you have to go bar hopping in Tel Aviv!"
Set in boutique Hotel Berdichevsky in the heart of the city, this bar is famed for artisanal cocktails by master mixologists who take their time. The quirky speakeasy's motto is: "We don't care how long it takes us, we're going somewhere beautiful."
Situated on the barfly strip that is Lilienblum Street, this backroom bar and restaurant resembles a gypsy caravan and is hailed as the world's first vegan Georgian restaurant. But guests still dance on the bar once the dairy-free food is no longer being served.
221 Ben Yehuda, T.A.
Shushu ("keep quiet") is an appropriate name for an underground dance bar (also a pick-up place slash eatery) with a discreet entrance through a yogurt shop. If you can't get in the door, try the yummy yogurt instead.
While the major luxury high-rises attract celebs and execs alike (Demi Moore stays at the David InterContinental, Justin Bieber took 30 rooms at the Sheraton, while The Dan boasts Denzel Washington and Jon Bon Jovi), the big draw in the last few years are design-centric boutique hotels.
hotelmontefiore.co.il; from $350 per night
Set in the heart of Bauhaus-era White City, this intimate 12-room hotel attracts such stars as Audrey Tautou and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Its 1920s-inspired restaurant serves Vietnamese fare, lavish Israeli breakfasts and killer cocktails.
thenorman.com; from $450 per night
Also in White City, this art deco villa opened last year, and CAA's Berkowitz is the Hollywood mogul who helped make it industry-desirable. "I take all my meetings here. I don't have to leave the hotel," he says. "I even got David Nevins to stay there!" Sean Penn stayed there on a recent trip.
The Brown TLV
browntlv.com; from $162 per night
Nestled between the popular Neve Tzedek artsy neighborhood and the city center, this 4-year-old hotel has a high-design urban vibe — plus tons of privacy. That's why Claire Danes resided here whenever Homeland shot nearby.
The Brown Beach House
brownhotels.com; from $135 per night
Opened in 2015 by the owners of Brown TLV, this airy sister establishment is just a block away from the water and has 40 rooms with private sun terraces and sea views.
Producer Lerner insists "the food in Tel Aviv is as good as any city in Europe or America — and you can go to dinner at 11 p.m. and eat a great meal!" Josephson says: "I'll go back just for the bread and olive oil!" Of course, there still are indigenous places for falafel, shawarma and myriad little bowls of salads, but the other hot culinary ticket is an Israeli breakfast. With sumptuous buffets of cheeses, olives, breads, eggs and fruit, it's Tel Aviv's most celebrated meal of the day. "I'd go back just for breakfast," says Tassler. "I've never tasted yogurt like that. I'm actually planning a trip now!"
"It's where you see all the film people, politicians and artists," says Lerner. Israeli actors, producers, models, et al — they're all here noshing on pizzas and pastas, and drinking Arak with grapefruit juice. "If you're in our business," says Grobman, "it's your living room."
The Sarona Market
3 Aluf Kalman Magen St, T.A.
Israel's largest indoor culinary market — think Dean & DeLuca on steroids — hosts 91 shops of cheeses, produce, pasta, pastries, chocolate, veal and fish — exotic food porn basically. It even sports a halvah bar and an ice-pop stand.
The Blue Rooster
Boasting a scene made up of models, musicians (Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones), actors (Tobey Maguire) and businessmen, this rustic, lively restaurant is located in the newish North Tel Aviv high-rise where model Bar Rafaeli lives.
Set in a 19th century courtyard surrounded by townhouses, this is the most uniquely gourmet restaurant in Tel Aviv's artsiest neighborhood, Neve Tzedek — the West Village or Silver Lake of the city.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.