Fawltless towers? Fierce competition raises hotel standards on King David Street

For 60 years, the King David ruled the roost unchallenged. Then came the Citadel and Mamilla. From the fall, the Waldorf Astoria will be jostling for your custom across from the Old City walls

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The Palace Hotel was opened by the Mufti of Jerusalem and is now being rebuilt by the Waldorf Astoria (photo credit: Rishwanth Jayapaul/Flash 90)
The Palace Hotel was opened by the Mufti of Jerusalem and is now being rebuilt by the Waldorf Astoria (photo credit: Rishwanth Jayapaul/Flash 90)

It’s breakfast time at Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel, and you can enjoy a casually elegant and fortifying version of the classic Israeli morning repast raised several notches with fresh melon soup served in shot glasses, latch-lid jars of goat yogurts and freshly squeezed orange juice.

No need to queue up at the omelette station to order that herbed dish of eggs; it will be delivered to your perfectly laid Chilewich placemat, as will frothy, steaming cappuccino.

And the service? Friendly, helpful and well-trained, although not always with the smooth assurance of the waiters over at the King David, where the dining room is “the model for the whole hotel,” according to guest services director Maya Morav, and is staffed by waiters who have been with the hotel for 20, 30, even 40 years.

The fine details are telling when you’re trying to distinguish between the comforts on offer in this corner of the city, which will be home to four deluxe hotels when the Waldorf Astoria opens in the fall. Besides the King David, Mamilla and the future Waldorf, there’s also Mamilla’s sister Alrov hotel, the David Citadel, just across the street.

That’s 1,087 luxury hotel rooms within a two-block radius, not even counting the well-regarded Inbal hotel down the road, the under-construction Four Seasons at the tip of Emek Refaim Street, and several other less palatial hotels in the area. But despite an average room price of around $450 at these top-notch accommodations, each hotel is almost always full. That’s due to their location, said Eran Nitzan, a senior director at the Tourism Ministry’s infrastructure and investments department.

A view of the King David's famed rose-colored limestone, gleaming with pride of place (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)
A view of the King David’s famed rose-colored limestone, gleaming with pride of place. (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

“The level of the hotel comes from the value of the land, which is very expensive right there,” he said. “You can’t build something cheap — you’re next to the Old City walls, it’s a prime location. It’s Jewish tourism, and the guests want what’s successful and impressive in that spot.”

So they do, agreed the managers at each of the five-star establishments. As the hosts of these hotels, and as both competitors and colleagues, they have the not-always enviable task of ensuring their accommodations retain the expected level of quality.

For many of the guests, these hotels represent a home away from home, and some always book the same room when visiting here. Lobbies, beds and meals become as familiar to them as their own home — or homes, as the case may be.

Royal rivalries

The Waldorf is the new kid on the block, still under construction on top of the remains of the street’s first hotel. The Palace Hotel — whose elegantly rounded facade is the base of the Waldorf — was the neighborhood’s first luxury edifice, built by the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el Husseini, who spared no cost and reportedly used public funds to construct the structure at the corner of Agron and King David streets for visiting rulers of the Muslim and Arab world. He hired a Turkish architect, Jewish contractor and Egyptian stonemasons who completed the hotel in just 11 months. But the hotel couldn’t compete with the nearby King David, and closed its doors in 1935.

The Palace Hotel was built near the Mamilla neighborhood and later used as a museum and then government offices before being reconstructed by the Waldorf Astoria (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
The Palace Hotel was built near the Mamilla neighborhood and later used as a museum and then government offices before being reconstructed by the Waldorf Astoria. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The King David, built of rose-colored limestone and overlooking the Old City walls, reigned for the next 60 years. It’s one of Israel’s two designated Leading Hotels of the World; the other is the charming and equally historic American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. As the flagship of the Dan Hotels group, it has long been, and in some ways continues to be, the queen of the block.

“We’re a state hotel, that’s our function; we’re perceived as the hotel that hosts official delegations and there’s all kinds of negotiations that take place here daily,” said Morav at the King David. “But 50% of our clientele are permanent, loyal guests who consider this their second home, so the hotel guests are eclectic in many ways. It’s not homogeneous.”

The British Ladbroke Group, which controls the Hilton Hotels Corporation, in 1998 won a bid to build the Hilton Jerusalem, the King David’s first neighborhood competitor. Ongoing disputes between Karta, the city’s development corporation, and Ladbroke led the British firm to leave the project, which was then purchased by developer Alfred Akirov’s Alrov company. Alrov then changed the hotel’s name to the David Citadel.

When the David Citadel opened in 1998, it stood across from the crumbling walls and lots of Mamilla, a neighborhood outside the Old City that was initially a mixed Jewish-Arab district and was shelled to pieces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Residents were moved to nearby neighborhoods and the area went into decline in the early 1970s, sitting empty for nearly 30 years while the city, government and developers fought over plans.

The ruins of Mamilla in 1949 (photo credit: Moshe Canari/Wikimedia Commons)
The ruins of Mamilla in 1949 (photo credit: Moshe Canari/Wikimedia Commons)

It took until the early 1990s for the plans for two hotels, the David Citadel and Mamilla, and the Mamilla shopping boulevard to be put into place under the aegis of then-city architect David Kroyanker and architect Moshe Safdie. Even that plan was subject to years of disputes, but eventually, the Mamilla Hotel and mall were built. They opened in 2009.

It’s quite natural that first-class hotels would be located along a street like King David, close to the Old City and Jaffa Gate, said Kroyanker, the doyen of Jerusalem architectural history.

“This was always an historic artery in the city, leading from north to south, and the new developments in the last 20 years, Mamilla Hotel and David Citadel and the Waldorf, indicate a trend that actually started in the 1930s,” he said. “Basically, it’s a very positive urban change. The architecture could be different here or there, some buildings could be lower in height, but to me that’s not the most important issue. There’s a whole corner here that becomes an urban space, an area that was always sort of broken up.”

Mamilla Street, date unknown (Photo from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection/Flash 90)
Mamilla Street, date unknown. (photo credit: Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection/Flash 90)

However, Guy Klaiman, the general manager of the Waldorf, who spent the last 23 years running Hilton hotels worldwide, argues that his hotel will be the first truly luxury accommodation on the block.

“We’re the only hotel that’s been built as a luxury hotel, from every standpoint — the rooms, the dishes, the sheets, the uniforms, the facilities we offer to guests,” said Klaiman. “Yes, the King David is lovely but it wasn’t built as a luxury hotel and neither is the David Citadel. The minute we come in, we set standards and everyone else will need to follow suit.”

According to his suppliers, “everyone’s wondering what we’re buying,” Klaiman said. “Everyone’s upgrading and renovating.”

It’s noteworthy that the Waldorf will have the biggest ballroom in the area, which may attract guests of other hotels who seek party space.

Friends or foes?

Despite the obvious competition among the four top hotels, there’s also a lot of cooperation between them, said the King David’s Morav. Before the visit of US President Barack Obama in March, the King David arranged to have the White House press corps stay at the Inbal, its natural companion hotel, while other guests were moved to the David Citadel, where some American officials — most notably president Bill Clinton — have at times chosen to stay rather than at the King David.

“The David Citadel is considered more of a competitor than the Inbal,” said Morav. “We share the same target audience. But when it comes to housing dignitaries, the Foreign Ministry likes us to collaborate, not monopolize. Everything is done correctly and properly.”

When the Hilton, now David Citadel, opened in 1998, the King David underwent a full renovation to make sure its facilities were on par with its neighbor’s. Most recently, the hotel redid its upper floors in preparation for the opening of the Waldorf, with a top suite for state visits that is “very high-tech,” said Morav, and has “no equal” in Israel for security and comfort.

Heads of state, such as US President Barack Obama, whose motorcade is shown here, usually stay at the King David (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)
Heads of state, such as US President Barack Obama, whose motorcade is shown here, usually stay at the King David. (photo credit: Nati Shochat/Flash 90)

There’s a slightly different tone at the 194-room Mamilla, which has been run from its start by Eli Maor, a veteran of several Israeli hotels. He helped develop Mamilla as a lifestyle hotel, a kind of large-scale boutique hotel for visitors aiming to appreciate Jerusalem for its cultural and historic, rather than religious, character.

“The guests didn’t know what Mamilla was at first,” said Maor. “It took at least a year and a half to educate them. They said, ‘I’ll go back to the David Citadel,’ and there were those who did and will always.”

With jazz in the lobby on Friday afternoons (and a capella singers on Friday nights, since Mamilla, like many Israeli hotels, is kosher and respectful of its Shabbat observers), not to mention the in-house wine bar and the salon feel of the Italian-designed seating areas in the lobby, Mamilla caters to a mostly secular Israeli and European crowd, said Maor.

“I don’t want huge groups,” he said. “My guests come, and go eat at Machneyuda,” the nonkosher, uber-popular Mahane Yehuda market bistro. “Assaf Granit [the Machneyuda chef], says anyone who comes to him sleeps at Mamilla. They want to come here, and they’re people who didn’t come to Jerusalem for years, but this place makes it doable for them to rediscover Jerusalem, the Old City, Mahane Yehuda. We’ve created a different kind of take on Jerusalem.”

Breakfast at Mamilla (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)
Breakfast at Mamilla (photo credit: Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)

It’s clear to Maor that the opening of the Waldorf will “take work from all of us, because the pie is pretty much the same size for us all,” he said. “No doubt there will be a trickle [taken] from us all. I think the Citadel will lose the most; King David customers go to the King David, and the younger generation came to us — they wanted the trendy place — but Citadel customers are the least dedicated and will cross the street at least to try it.”

At the same time, having another hotel “like us” on the strip should bring even more people to the area, said Maor, as good competition does. “There’s a buzz,” he said, “that it’s worth coming to Jerusalem because of all these new hotels.”

That’s the expectation of Nitzan, the Tourism Ministry official. “We want this to be a tourism area and we’re happy to have this many hotel rooms here,” he said. “That’s what we need.”

Service with a smirk?

While guests may be willing to pay a premium for the honor of staying in rooms overlooking the Old City walls, what has remained a struggle is the effort to provide the kind of service that hotel guests are accustomed to receiving in five-star establishments.

It’s true that service in a top Israeli hotel — where much of the staff that cleans, serves or waits on the guests may be local teenagers or college students learning the ropes of the service industry — is sometimes difficult to teach, managers admitted. That said, there’s a certain Israeli charm that comes into play, and they’re not against using it to their advantage.

The King David’s Morav believes it has to do with a quintessential Israeli sense of character and culture, the way the King David, and other hotels, work to make their guests feel at home, in a personal, non-formulaic, humorous manner.

Waiters at the King David (photo credit: Michael Plutchok/CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Waiters at the King David often stick around for 20, 30, even 40 years (photo credit: Michael Plutchok/CC BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“It’s our model — you can’t teach this, you can develop it,” she said. “Israelis are very direct by nature, so the task is to make it more sophisticated. Sincerity is okay, and the sophistication lies in using more humor, knowing intuitively when to speak, because all guests are not the same.”

In other words, it’s okay for a staff member to offer a certain sense of familiarity, as Israelis do, when chatting with guests, but it must be tempered by an awareness of the nature of the guest-staff relationship.

“Service wasn’t provided by the early Israelis because it wasn’t natural to them,” Morav said, smiling. “Modern Israel has undergone a considerable change, we’re a much more bourgeois society. There is much more awareness with the growth of tourism, of service, especially in the big cities. I would underline Tel Aviv as a prototype of awareness of service.”

The Waldorf’s Klaiman agreed.

“I’m fed up with guests who say, ‘You are a new country, you don’t really know how to do service,’” he said. “We’re new luxury. We get it better than the others.”

Waldorf manager Guy Klaiman says 'everyone' is curious about what kind of dishes, sheets and towels the hotel will be using for its guests (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Waldorf manager Guy Klaiman says ‘everyone’ is curious about what kind of dishes, sheets and towels the hotel will be using for its guests. (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“My ambition is to show that we can do it rather than just throw my hands up in the air — and I still really believe it,” he continued. “When you go to some restaurants, you get fantastic service. Maybe there’s more of that in Tel Aviv. If you go for shish kebab, sure, service is lousy everywhere, but if you go to Chakra [a well-regarded Jerusalem restaurant], there the waiters are a different style: they know the product, they are open, they are quick, and that wasn’t obvious many years ago.”

Mamilla’s Maor grinned upon hearing about Klaiman’s plans for staff enrichment, and said he hoped his people wouldn’t “cross the street” to work at the Waldorf.

“We’ve invested a lot as well,” he said. “We want our service to be great and even more so when there’s someone new on the block. We’re trying to protect our staff, and hope they resist the temptations around them.”

Still, despite the luxuries, services and comforts provided by the various King David Street hotels, they’re still not anything like the Four Seasons, said Nitzan, referring to the renowned hotel chain that is building in the German Colony, a five-minute drive away.

“We’ve put in a lot to get them there,” he said, referring to the ongoing negotiations with the German Colony neighborhood organization, which, concerned about the traffic and architectural changes a towering hotel would bring to a community of period homes and quaint, narrow streets, launched a community campaign to outlaw the project.

The David Citadel, the first of the two Alrov hotels, and originally built as a Hilton, just across from its sister hotel, the Mamilla Hotel (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)
The David Citadel, the first of the two Alrov hotels, and originally built as a Hilton, just across from its sister hotel, the Mamilla Hotel (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

“There’s an advantage to having that kind of hotel here,” he said. “It has clubs of very high-end guests, and we think it’ll be good to have Israel on the Four Seasons website, for people who go from Four Seasons to Four Seasons. It’s good for our presence.”

The Tourism Ministry has been looking to bring in international chains of hotels, said Nitzan. “Local chains will learn from them and they’ll strengthen our overall market.”

The Waldorf’s Klaiman is pretty sure that his hotel is the best, and that he and the rest of his staff won’t need to learn from the newcomer down the street.

“My deputy was in London, my chef was in Venice, my front desk was the Saint Regence,” he said, ticking off the list with his fingers. “Our image is that we’re always on the lookout, always checking. We want to recreate the wheel, and do it right, right here on King David Street.”

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