Dec 15, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill guides us through the storied King David Hotel.
I first stayed at the King David Hotel in 1961. Back then, it felt both magnificent and ancient, even though it was barely thirty years old. Sixty years later, it creeps inexorably towards its centenary. The King David is one of that global parade of palatial “grand hotels” fashioned to dot the British Empire. Built both to pamper and to underscore the grandeur of colonialism, for 75 years it has been the Israeli address for the world’s diplomats, presidents, kings, queens, and the privileged. It enters its tenth decade under inspired management that promises to transform it into the jewel it always should have been, but never quite managed to be. A family named Federmann, and a suave man named Tamir Kobrin, are behind the transformation. Don’t get me wrong. The King David’s always been super. Now it’s becoming extraordinary.
The King David Hotel opened in 1930, constructed of the golden-pinkish stone that is ubiquitous in Israel’s capital. Owned by Egyptian Jews whose portfolio included the Winter Palace in Luxor, the Cataract in Aswan, and Shepheard’s in Cairo, the King David instantly became the jewel in the crown of the British Mandate in Palestine. In 2022, it’s still a crown jewel, one of those hotels – like Berlin’s Adlon, London’s Claridge’s, or the Paris Ritz – that seems immune to competition. Bigger, newer, spiffier hotels come along, but they never manage to topple the crown jewel from its pedestal.
The King David has been through a lot, from wars near and far to a 1946 bombing. In 1966, two additional storeys were piled onto its original four floors; it was accomplished so seamlessly that unless someone told you the top two floors are “new,” you’d never know. From 1948 until 1967, the King David’s backyard reached to the barbed wire that scarred the divided city. Now, that backyard is home to what is Jerusalem’s most beautiful private park and its finest swimming pool. Peace has been negotiated in the hallowed halls of the King David. This is the Israeli home of the President of the United States and the King of England. Everyone who is anyone has stayed here.
And yet, for the King David’s massive following of non-celebrated guests, it’s always been fabulous, if just slightly eccentric at the edges. The eccentricity was always a phenomenon difficult to identify or even describe. Physically, the King David was always splendid. So what was that oddness? I suppose it’s best described as one of attitude. Just a smidgin of the smartass-ness of the Catskills, and the “nobody’s-better than-me" brashness of Israel’s onetime socialism, managed to creep in. The Israel-born Federmanns and the Israel-born Kobrin are determined to snuff all that out.
Just as Bill Clinton became president in 1992 because of his insistence that “it’s the economy, stupid,” Tamir Kobrin insists that the recipe for the perfect hotel stay is “service, service, service.” Kobrin actually began his hotel career at the King David. But then he continued to the Plaza in New York, to the Maldives, to Rocco Forte’s Hotel de Russie in Rome, to the Leela Palace in Delhi. He learned what it is that makes exquisite hotels exquisite, and it’s not the marble. Urged by the Federmanns to return home, Kobrin complied and for two years, Covid-be-damned, he’s been slowly but surely performing magic at the King David.
Kobrin looked at what is the first impression of a hotel and reordered check-in. On my recent visit I no longer had to lean at the counter watching the front-desk clerk tap the keyboard. No, my wife and I were ushered to the lobby’s historic ‘throne chairs,’ and offered a welcome drink while an amiable clerk processed our check-in on an iPad.
Just beyond the lobby is one of the King David’s many delights: its stone terrace that faces Jerusalem’s 16th-century ramparts. For years, I’ve been having lunch, tea, coffee, cocktails here. But until Kobrin came to call, nobody ever breakfasted on the King David’s terrace. Now, what was once considered Israel’s only good culinary experience is offered beneath elegant umbrellas, the epic view spread out before the gaze of bleary-eyed guests. A massive breakfast buffet and à la carte menu is also available in the dining room, and, as another alternative, continental breakfast is now served in the Oriental Bar.
Tobrin is not a screamer. He determined that to up the service performed by the King David’s staff (some working at the hotel for more than a half-century) foot stamping was not the answer. He created teams of staff-members to encourage self-motivation. Gently, quietly, a revolution happened. Smiles became instant, and genuine. As did the concept that the guest is always right. A few of the old-timers couldn’t take the fresh air and decided to move on. But most haven’t, and they’ve been joined by a legion of newbies whose first talent is charm. Because while the niceties of service can be taught, graciousness can’t.
Kobrin, given full rein by the Federmanns - who acquired the King David in the early 1950’s and opened Tel Aviv’s grand dame Dan Tel Aviv in 1953 - has been joined in his quest for transformation by Chef Roi Antebi. Antebi trained in some of Israel’s best restaurants, as well as at a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Italy, and at Carbone in New York. Working together, Kobrin and Antebi have introduced a variety of upgrades. The King’s Garden restaurant is now labeled a ‘brasserie,’ with a more sophisticated menu and entertainment by members of the Music Academy of Jerusalem. The scene at the Orient Bar as well as afternoon tea in the lobby lounge has also been augmented by live music and an array of laboratory- cocktails.
The most ambitious F&B projects include the swimming pool Bar & Grill now serving a wide array of “Jerusalem Street Food,” as well as an improved drinks and ice cream service poolside. Three private Beluga brand cabanas are now reservable near the pool, complete with private butlers and Nespresso coffee machines. The hotel’s traditional Friday evening Shabbat dinner has been dramatically upgraded to include elegant waiter-service for the array of main courses instead of having to stand in line at a raucous buffet. Atop the hotel, the King David is working together with the Mediterranean Gin Mare brand to create a panoramic cocktail bar. Last, but not least, the hotel’s La Regence restaurant is to reopen in 2023 as a high-end steakhouse with an open kitchen, full bar, a fulltime sommelier expert in Israeli wines. and indoor and exterior seating. As Israel’s leading hotel, all these cuisine offerings adhere strictly to Jewish dietary laws.
When I return to the King David next year, I will make a beeline for the new rooftop bar to sip a gin and tonic as the sunset turns the Old City walls from beige to gold to pink. And then it’ll be a T-Bone in the new steakhouse. But the best part will be to return to my room after dinner, where the hotel’s fleet of housekeeping staff, elegantly dressed after 6PM in black with white lace aprons, will have turned down my bed, turned on the bedside lights, and left me something delicious on my pillow. To me, the King David is not merely a grand hotel. It’s a cherished experience.