This morning, I found myself thinking about my favorite restaurant thirty-three years ago. I was living in Jerusalem at the time, working with the Israel Radio Orchestra (Jerusalem Symphony).
I went on the Web and, to my delighted surprise, I found that the place is still there! Abu Shukri Restaurant is on the Via Dolorosa, close to the Damascus Gate in the Old City, close to the fifth station of the Cross. To the west is the Christian Quarter of the Old City, and to the east is the Moslem Quarter.
In the mid-1970s, Jerusalem was a very different place. Saul Bellow wrote about the Israel I remember in To Jerusalem And Back. Reading Bellow's description of Jerusalem and the Old City makes me homesick at times, if it is possible to yearn for a place where you lived thirty-three years ago.
We would walk to the Old City after weekday rehearsals at the Jerusalem YMCA (across from the King David Hotel) and made our way over cobblestone streets to Abu's for lunch at least two or three times a week. Abu's became a lunch hangout for members of the orchestra. Some of the "regulars" at Abu's included Frank Morelli (our principal bassoonist at the time, who now works with the Orpheus Ensemble in New York and teaches at Juilliard, Yale and Manhattan Schools of Music), Bill Lipman (our co-principal clarinetist, now on the faculty of Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas) and Larry Kaufman (a fellow Indiana University grad and the orchestra's co-principal hornist).
The décor at Abu's was simple. Faded yellow-green plaster walls with arched ceilings and old-fashioned commercial light fixtures, each with a naked light bulb, plus a few ceiling fans rotating lazily overhead made up the surroundings. Frommers.com reports the tables are now Formica, but my recollection from the seventies was wooden café tables with chipped, well-worn marble tops. Abu brought us hummus drizzled with olive oil in small bowls, and loads of pita bread right out of the oven. At the tables were small white onions that had a "bite" to them. We'd peel the onions with our fingers and break the pieces up over the warm hummus. A little boy with bare feet brought us more pita bread and Coca-cola in small, green glass bottles which cost about a pound and a half each (1.5 IL at the time, or about thirty-five cents). The little boy is probably running the place today.
The Via Dolorosa had a "touristy" feel to it in those days. There were gift shops, restaurants, camera stores, antiquities dealers and pharmacies. I remember a place called the "Fourth Station of the Cross Pharmacy" where you could buy penicillin and other antibiotics over the counter. A few minutes' walk away was the Damascus Gate, where we'd change money at Victoria's. You could purchase a carton of Marlboro cigarettes at the time, real American cigarettes, for $40.
This was not meant to be a restaurant review, although I highly recommend visiting Abu Shukri if you're in Jerusalem. Abu's was much more than a restaurant to us. We went there to talk and argue, and occasionally to complain about a conductor. We were kids then, thousands of miles from home. We felt like we were living history. And in some ways, we were.