A hotel of firsts reopens in Tel Aviv after a 70-year hiatus

Sleeping with the ghosts of David Ben-Gurion, Albert Einstein, and King Abdullah I at the newly renovated Elkonin Hotel in Tel Aviv

TEL AVIV, Israel — In a quiet corner of the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv, under the watchful eye of gleaming new high-rises but with an unfiltered view of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, a valuable piece of history has been revived, renovated and restored.

The Elkonin, the first-ever hotel in this, the first modern Jewish city, sits on the far end of Lilienblum Street, on the edge of Tel Aviv’s first neighborhood, Neve Tzedek. Boasting such illustrious guests as David Ben-Gurion, Albert Einstein and King Abdullah I, who ruled Jordan from 1921-51, the hotel reopened for business five months ago after a 70-year hiatus.

The smell of fresh paint and new carpeting still lingers in the hallways of the original 18-room guesthouse, which has now been expanded to some 44 rooms replete with two family suites, a rooftop pool, bar and a Clarins luxury spa, thanks to a cleverly constructed modern glass tower placed in the center of its L-shaped base.

Like many of the other buildings in this historic and picturesque section of Tel Aviv – the first to be built beyond the ancient port of adjacent Jaffa more than 100 years ago – the Elkonin, in part, tells the intertwined stories of the city and the country’s foundings.

Originally opened in 1913, just five years after Tel Aviv was established on dusty sand dunes and with a mere 80 or so buildings standing in the district, the hotel was founded by Menachem and Malka Elkonin. The family, including six children, had immigrated from Smolensk, Russia, in 1911 and lived together on the ground floor, the area that now serves as the modern hotel’s bar and lounge reception.

According to family lore, Menachem arrived with a pocketful of French gold coins known as Napoleans, purchased the sandy lot and hired local architect Shmuel Wilson, who promised to bring a modern European style to Eretz Israel, to design and construct the hotel. Three stories high, the elegant exterior complete with wrap-around balconies, stylized stone pillars and wide window ledges, once loomed over the other buildings in the new city.

For a time, the Elkonin was the only hotel outside of Jaffa and courted prominent guests: Ben-Gurion, according to the guest ledger, slept in Room 34 sometime in the 1920s; around that same time, the Jordanian king was a frequent guest.

For roughly three decades, the Elkonin family operated the hotel until new owners took over and it first became the Central Hotel. At some point in the 1940s, was turned into an apartment hotel. In the 1950s through to the ’80s, the building contained offices with a few residential apartments remaining, before falling into utter disrepair.

Graffiti-riddled and crumbling, the neglected building was purchased in 2004 by French-Israeli entrepreneur Dominique Romano with an eye to restoring and reopening it once again as a hotel. As a UNESCO-protected structure, however, the renovation process was arduous and bureaucratic, Morgan Mondoloni, the hotel’s general manager, told Jewish Insider during a recent tour and interview, and it took more than 14 years to fully complete the restoration and additions.

The hotel, which held its soft launch in January, but only became fully operational last month, is part of the MGallery Hotel Collection belonging to the luxury French multinational hospitality company, the Accor Group. The original structure was brought back to life by Tel Aviv architectural renewal firm Bar Orian, and the interior was refurbished with a stroke of Parisian elegance by French design studio ICONIQUE.

Guests arriving at the hotel today can enjoy many of the original or historic features, including a mix of funky Art Deco floor tiles and the increasingly rare speckled classic Israeli-style ones, as well as one remaining fresco on the ceiling above the stairwell and some of the 1920s-style moldings.

The hotel, of course, has been updated with modern fixtures too. The bedrooms, which also include suites named for the original owners, Menachem and Malka, offer both the airy high ceilings of the last century, plus state-of-the-art lighting and some impressive environmentally friendly high-tech features (think electronically operated blinds).

The hotel’s dining room, which is decorated with black-and-white photographs of old Tel Aviv, has been fully refurbished and now contains the exquisite L’Époque Restaurant, belonging to famous French chef Joël Robuchon’s chain known for its Michelin stars (Michelin does not rate restaurants in Israel). The restaurant, which is not kosher, is open to outside guests and offers a unique and classic array of French dishes with seafood, fish and meat, as well as an extensive and varied wine list.

Soon, diners will be given the option to enjoy their meal on the hotel’s rooftop, which also contains a bar and an infinity pool with a panoramic view of Tel Aviv. In the basement, Clarins, the French beauty company, runs the spa, which offers a deluxe menu of facial and body massage treatments for individuals and couples, as well as a Middle Eastern-style Hammam.

Back in the lobby, there is no classic “front desk” or “concierge table” to greet guests; instead, those arriving are immediately invited to relax on plush couches and enjoy hot or cold beverages while being checked in by an attentive staff.

Mondoloni, a veteran of the hospitality industry in his native France, said that his goal is to create a warm and welcoming vibe so that people “feel like they’ve arrived home.”

“From the very beginning, this hotel was built as a house, and we want to keep that atmosphere,” said the 33-year-old, who immigrated to Israel four years ago.

In the early days of the Elknonin, he continued, “when you arrived at the hotel, there was no reception desk, you arrived right at the dining room, and the rooms were located above.”

“I believe that in all of our interactions with guests, we can really change people’s lives, even in the smallest ways,” theorized Mondoloni. “Sometimes you arrive in Israel, at Ben Gurion Airport and you have to wait hours to get to your luggage or go through security and then there’s a taxi driver who is trying to get more money from you or maybe during the flight from New York you had a child yelling – our challenge, when you arrive here, is to make you smile, to make you feel at home and make you forget about everything that just happened.”

Mondoloni, who noted that over the past few years Tel Aviv has witnessed a boom in similar boutique hotels, with many even opening within historic premises, said that what sets Elkonin apart is the effort – by him and the French hotel group – to offer a high level of service not generally found in Israel.

“We are very picky about the service, and this has been the greatest challenge of all here,” he said. “Hospitality, unfortunately in Israel, is not considered a career – unlike in France or in the United States, you do not see older people serving you.”

“Our staff had to learn everything from scratch,” Mondoloni explained. “For this, we had teams from the MGallery, from Clarins and from Robuchon working both on the floor and in the kitchen training everyone.”

“They told me that it was a struggle because they had to teach everything from scratch, even though we hired people who had previous experience working in hotels, restaurants, or in spas; the level was just not there,” he continued.

Mondoloni, who has worked with both the international Hilton hotel group and the Israeli group, Brown, said that with so many new hotels opening in Tel Aviv, “there is a fight for manpower.”

“Now they are ready and trained, we have to make sure to keep our talents in the house, and this is what I’m trying to do every day,” he said.

A night at the Elkonin Tel Aviv Hotel starts at $450 including breakfast. The writer was a guest of the hotel.

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