Not by the window, thanks

Observations on restaurants

Israel is called the land of milk and honey, so the food should be good. But how to judge a good restaurant? Returning to Jerusalem this year, I was an apprehensive visitor. Despite the relative calm of recent months, cafe bombings were playing on my mind. It was at the very least an appetite suppressant.

I had visited my redoubtable grandmother here several times, but she died last December, some years past her 100th birthday. She lived outside the ancient walls, in the German Colony. Although across the city the separatist influence of ultra-Orthodox Jewry becomes more palpable with each visit, here in this cosmopolitan corner, with its espresso bars and Viennese cake shops, there is still something of the old European, secular, liberal world that the neighbourhood's dwindling population of elderly residents brought with them.

The main street, Emek Rafaim, used to be a sleepy sidewalk with the odd cafe, but now it is fashionable, with pavement restaurants and bars that are busy into the night. One of the oldest, Caffit, sits on a corner site with tables and chairs across its raised patio. Three years ago a young man came to blow it up, but he was spotted by a waiter and wrestled to the ground, and calamity was avoided.

Cafe Hillel, across the road, was less lucky. One of a chain of chic eateries serving all-day Israeli breakfasts, lush salads and coffee to rival anywhere in Rome, it also came under attack, in September 2002. Again, security guards managed to spot the bomber and forced him out on to the pavement, but there he blew himself up, killing six diners.

So guards can't guarantee safety, but their presence offers some reassurance and is testament, too, to the Israelis' admirable resolve to get on with life. Faced with that example, I would have felt churlish and cowardly avoiding the town-centre restaurants.

I arrived during Purim, the Jewish holiday. With its emphasis on fancy dress and celebration, it was a colourful reminder that this city isn't all about bad news. We struggled to get a table anywhere near the pedestrianised Ben Yehuda Street. Bags searched, we eventually made it past a cordon of metal gates and sandbags for an incongruous dinner of steak and cocktails surrounded by cowboys and pirates, at a chic bar with a Hebrew name and a hip-hop backbeat.

Emboldened by a buoyant night out, we went back to Emek Rafaim for lunch the following day. We found Caffit unbowed but not as I had remembered it. The terrace, once open to the street, is now caged in and the security more complex even than in Ben Yehuda Street. After searching us, the guard on the door radioed in to staff who operate the heavy metal door by remote control. Across the road at Cafe Hillel, a similar operation reassures its loyal clientele.

The toughest-looking guard I saw was at the nearby McDonald's. Caught out on the Sabbath, I felt suddenly open to a McKebab. But the guard and his airport-sized metal detector certainly gave a different look to Ronald McDonald.