Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea tells the story of an unlucky fisherman fighting hunger and the elements while battling a large marlin in an attempt to reverse the curse on his fishing.

At coastal Jaffa’s restaurant of the same name—HaZaken veHaYam in Hebrew—you bring your hunger with you, and your only battle is against your stomach as you test its limits.

The family-owned restaurant is a Jaffa institution. It now has two locations, a more “rugged” original and a shinier newer spot at Jaffa’s port. My friend and I visited the original restaurant and, while it is shabby, once the food starts coming, little else matters. The restaurant, which overlooks the sea, is huge, with tables inside and on the outdoor balcony. They say it can accommodate hundreds of people at once.

The moment you pick a plastic table—inside the restaurant or on the large balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea—energetic men flock over to dress it in a cloth tablecloth that has seen better days, followed by a paper covering. Each place setting gets a paper placemat listing the main course options.hazaken-vehayam-fish-crop

No more than five minutes elapse before a server brings a pitcher of borderline cloying lemonade that has an unnatural neon tinge and flimsy plastic cups. But then he also starts unloading little plates onto the table, at least twenty of them, full of salatim, assorted salads and vegetable appetizers like pickled cabbage, beets, tabbouleh and guacamole à la Middle East, as well as hummus and very green falafel. These dishes are accompanied by a basket of large, flat, pocket-less pita bread fresh from the taboun (stone oven).

Some salads stand out more than others. The tinny taste of the corn hints at canned corn and leaves much to be desired, but the pickled cabbage has a bite that lovers of fermented food will appreciate. The real excitement is trying all of them, though you’ll ultimately pick only a few favorites that are worth your full attention.

If you don’t pay attention, you might easily think that the salatim are reproducing at your very table. In the blink of an eye, dishes with just a few cubes of beets or scraps of hummus remaining are replaced with full ones.

Waiters flutter around in what almost looks like a carefully choreographed dance, delivering salads, hookahs and cups of coffee to patrons, who range from Palestinian families, including women sporting hijabs and floor-length cloaks, to young Israeli business people to tourists of all nationalities.

It’s easy to forget that the salatim are just the beginning, the palate stimulator, if you will. The centerpiece of the meal is, in fact, the fish. My friend and I both ordered grilled denis (seabream), a mild white fish that is served whole, seasoned with a mysterious, but interesting spice mix and served with a few spiced potatoes and half a lemon.

Though the two of us were sitting at a table for four, we had to clear our appetizer plates to make room for the platters of fish swimming among our sea of salads.

Silence descended on our table as we dissected our respective fish, dousing it with lemon, navigating through the bones and occasionally “resting” to take a swipe at the hummus and remaining salads.

The language and scenery were different, but looking out onto the sea and wrapping up the meal with a strong, sweet cardamom-laced black coffee—the Middle Eastern version of a Cuban cafecito—we could almost taste the 1950s Cuba that inspired Hemingway’s classic tale.

HaZaken VeHaYam, +972-53-8094390, 83 Kedem Street, Jaffa, Israel; open daily 11:00 am-1:00 am.
+972-53-8094346, Hangar 1, Jaffa Port, Israel; open daily 11:00 am-12:00 am