'The chef has this great ability to bring people together'

Rehov Charlotte: An ‘under-the-table’ experience that will have you asking for more

Having studied and worked in some of Europe’s top hospitality schools, French immigrant Charlotte Hadjaj is taking dining 'out' to a whole new level - and patrons are eating it up

An undated photo of Charlotte Hadjaj. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue at Jaffa Port. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Jaffa. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Jaffa. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte "secret" dinner venue in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Jaffa. (Courtesy)
A Rehov Charlotte 'secret' dinner venue in Jaffa, December 13, 2022. (Tobias Siegal/The Times of Israel)
Charlotte Hadjaj poses for a picture before a dinner event in Jaffa, December 13, 2022. (Tobias Siegal/The Times of Israel)

The restaurant reservation was made without any knowledge of the menu or location. After arriving at an old apartment building in Jaffa and climbing a dark narrow staircase, however, tonight’s venue becomes clear: a beautiful rooftop, decorated with graffiti and roses.

Burgundy wine is served and Mediterranean appetizers with a French twist are offered. The smell of freshly baked bread is distracting for a group of strangers — soon to be fast friends — who are all equally confused and excited by chef Charlotte Hadjaj’s latest pop-up event.

Going from a humble table for two in a narrow alleyway to an exclusive dining experience on mesmerizing rooftops — would-be diners are often placed on waiting lists — the French immigrant’s new vision of dining out in Israel has skyrocketed in less than two years.

Having studied and worked in some of Europe’s top hospitality schools and restaurants, Hadjaj, now 30, moved to Israel in 2019 with a passion for food and people and a desire to connect the two in new ways. During her first few months in the country, she worked at the Setai luxury hotel in Jaffa, where she hoped to improve her Hebrew and make connections in the hospitality industry.

However, the pandemic had different plans, and the young immigrant soon found herself stuck inside her tiny studio apartment in a foreign country without a steady income. But these limitations spurred Hadjaj to tap into her creativity more than ever, she says, and helped her come up with the idea that would turn into a business and an exciting new chapter in her life.

“The spare time made me think about what I really wanted from my new life. I started focusing on my real dreams. I experimented in my small kitchen, mostly cooking for myself and slowly realizing what I really wanted to do,” Hadjaj tells The Times of Israel.

Starting to experiment with local produce from the market in Jaffa and combining it with dishes she prepared back home in France, Hadjaj gradually created a menu that highlighted the best of both worlds. Looking for Israeli palates to try out her new creations, she initially sought the help of her neighbors and friends.

An undated photo of Charlotte Hadjaj. (Courtesy)

“I used to live in a very small studio apartment in Jaffa. I would put a small table outside for my neighbors and friends during the pandemic, basically making dinner for bystanders,” Hadjaj says. “Jaffa is like a small village. We all talk to each other.”

The word spread fast.

“It drew attention. My neighbors started asking what I was doing. People thought I was opening a restaurant. That’s when the idea came to my head to expand it and make a job out of it,” she says.

Still physically confined due to COVID restrictions at the time, Hadjaj began offering a two-person dinner outside her small studio apartment. People loved it.

“It started as a small pop-up restaurant. I would serve dinner for couples that I prepared in my small studio kitchen, which was basically in my bedroom,” she says, laughing.

A Rehov Charlotte ‘secret’ dinner venue at Jaffa Port. (Courtesy)

“Back then, there was no special atmosphere, no artist playing music, just my own playlist running in the background. It was all happening on the street, so I decided to call it ‘Rehov Charlotte.’ I was the French girl on the street, so I used my French name with the Hebrew word for ‘street,’ which was what I was becoming — half Israeli and half French.”

Tales of the humble-yet-romantic experience offered by Hadjaj slowly spread by word of mouth. Social media did the rest, and a few successful posts on Instagram and on the Facebook group Secret Tel Aviv meant the news was out and reservations started flowing in.

A French-Israeli fusion

Today, Rehov Charlotte offers two distinct experiences: the dinner experience, usually, but not always, booked by groups (between six and 40 people) for a specific event — often to celebrate a birthday or as a bonding experience for coworkers — and the “happy hour” option, which puts less of a focus on the food and more on the alcoholic beverages and entertainment, allowing strangers to bond in new ways. This option usually draws the adventurous type, according to Hadjaj.

While very different, both options reflect Hadjaj’s vision and implement her knowledge of French and Israeli cuisine. And each event is held in a different, uniquely captivating venue.

A Rehov Charlotte ‘secret’ dinner venue in Jaffa. (Courtesy)

Hadjaj defines her cooking as traditional French with Mediterranean inspirations. Examples include fig salad with goat cheese, persimmon salad with shallots and camembert, zucchini mint basil salad with feta, fondue of leek in coconut cream with a salmon filet made with secret spices, and a filet of seabream with Meunière sauce. Drinks may include what Hadjaj describes as a Mediterranean aperitif — a glass of prosecco, Aperol, or carbonated water served with green olives.

While the menu changes from event to event, it usually includes fish and dairy and always maintains the French-Israeli fusion.

“I prepare what I love eating myself,” Hadjaj says. “I love making people feel at home. Even if it’s an organized event, I still try to provide this atmosphere of a guesthouse, like people are visiting my home and I’m their host.”

A custom-tailored, yet secret experience

While she tries to create a comfortable and cozy space for her guests, another important aspect of Hadjaj’s events is the secrecy they entail. In both the dinner and the “happy hour” options, guests arrive at an unknown location in Tel Aviv or Jaffa (and more recently Jerusalem as well), to a menu and a musical artist selected by Hadjaj and kept under wraps until the event begins. She usually uses seasonal produce from markets across Tel Aviv and Jaffa and hires local, often unknown musicians to accompany her events.

Guests may ask for certain music or general flavors, but Hadjaj makes sure to surprise them every single time. Judging by the demand, it’s a recipe for success.

A Rehov Charlotte ‘secret’ dinner venue in Jaffa. (Courtesy)

Tel Aviv resident Marine Ben Yeshaya works in a local startup and is always on the lookout for new, fun ways to engage her team.

“Every quarter I look for something cool we could do as a team. If there’s food involved it’s even better,” she tells The Times of Israel.

“We are a group of 12 people with a very international background — Austria, Argentina, Canada, United States, France, Brazil and Greece,” she adds, noting that it can sometimes be hard to find an activity that everyone is happy with.

Ben Yeshaya, who moved to Israel from France 10 years ago, came across Rehov Charlotte on Instagram and decided to give it a go.

“Charlotte kept everything very secret,” Ben Yeshaya says. “We just agreed on an oriental theme, but I didn’t know what to expect. My team kept asking me where we were going, and I couldn’t tell them. It created some suspense but turned out to be a special and different experience. I had zero control but trusted her to make it amazing, and it worked.”

Hadjaj explains this is also meant to help people move out of their comfort zones and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

“We’re all sometimes afraid of going out alone. Characterizing the events as a journey full of surprises, and not knowing exactly what to expect, helps people let go of their fear and just flow with it,” she says.

Charlotte Hadjaj addresses her guests during a dinner event in Jaffa, December 13, 2022. (Tobias Siegal/Times of Israel)

Ben Yeshaya also highlights Hadjaj’s personal touch and attention to detail.

“When we arrived, there was candlelight everywhere. The outside seemed very mundane but when we entered it was a different world. It felt like a perfect mix between Israel and Europe,” she says. “The food felt like it had a soul. It felt homemade, but like your grandma would make it.”

Hadjaj and her team were present the entire time, offering the group explanations about the dishes and constant refills of anything they needed, Ben Yeshaya says. She describes the experience as “a general feeling of warmth” heightened by a performer playing Middle Eastern tunes on the oud, a traditional Persian music instrument.

Ben Yeshaya says Hadjaj “also took the time to prepare a cake for our manager who celebrated a birthday that day. The artist sang happy birthday too. Our manager didn’t expect it. It was really sweet. My team still speaks about that evening; it was a very bonding experience.”

A musician plays the oud during a Rehov Charlotte ‘secret’ dinner venue in Jaffa, December 13, 2022. (Tobias Siegal/The Times of Israel)

Bringing people together

According to Danielle Garnel, who has worked alongside Hadjaj for over a year, Rehov Charlotte has prompted other, similar initiatives across the city.

“Charlotte has this great ability to bring people together. Somehow, this whole thing started during the pandemic. Now, you’re seeing this catalyst produce similar experiences, interactive workshops, and dinners all over Tel Aviv. I think these events have inspired others to open their homes too and this wonderful renaissance is offering great ways of meeting new people,” she says.

Originally from Austin, Texas, Garnel believes Jaffa and Tel Aviv also played an important role in making Rehov Charlotte and similar experiences a success.

“Tel Aviv-Jaffa is an awesome place where people can come together. There’s such a sense of community, the way you can meet people,” Garnel says.

Charlotte Hadjaj (R) and Danielle Garnel prepare for a dinner event in Jaffa, December 13, 2022. (Tobias Siegal/The Times of Israel)

She continues: “In Tel Aviv, I feel safe and comfortable. If I lived elsewhere, I would definitely be more hesitant about inviting strangers into my home. There’s a communal trust here in a way, in the sense that people care about each other.”

Garnel describes the unique social dynamics often created in Hadjaj’s events, which often draw Israelis, expats, and new immigrants all under one roof.

“People say Israelis are very direct, which has to do with authenticity. Expats, meanwhile, are putting themselves in a new experience and looking for a community. So, when people show up vulnerable and authentic, there’s an opportunity for everyone to get along,” she says.

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