The huge breakfast buffet that Israeli hotels have lavished upon their guests for years is being phased out, the victim of rising costs.
What was known as the "Israeli breakfast," or to some the "Kibbutz breakfast" -- a spread that usually included everything from pickled herring to olives -- is being replaced in most Israeli hotels by the token meal called the Continental breakfast: coffee and a roll.
The Jerusalem Hotel Association set Sept. 15 as the day the buffet would be oliminated. All the major hotels were asked by the association to take the step together, so that no hotel could gain an advantage by retaining the buffet. Of Israel's 300 large hotels, only the 20 biggest are expected to continue to offer the buffett -- and they will provide it only as an extra. The others, most of which in the past gave it free with the room, agreed to discontinue it.
For visitors to Israel, who last year numbered over a million, the huge buffet breakfast was something to be cherished and remembered, along with dancing the hora and seeing the ancient fortress of Masada at dawn. It was, in fact, easier than either of those -- a simple stroll, plate in hand, past yards and yards of heavily laden white tablecloths.
The breakfast buffet traditionally includes juice, fresh fruit, stewed fruit, pickled and smoked herring, perhaps some smoked salmon, olives, cucumbers, green peppers, yogurt, cottage cheese, sliced yellow cheeses, tomatoes, boiled eggs, jams, butter, bread, rolls, croissants and, of course, coffee or tea. For the newcomer it was always a stunning sight.
"I was aghast," one American businessman assigned here said. "Pickled herring at dawn? Cucumbers for breakfast? It took a long time to get used to. I still can't handle the pickled herring, but I've gotten to where I have to have my cucumber fix every morning."
The Israeli breakfast was a product of the kibbutz movement, influenced by the hearty-style breakfast, with a few refinements added for American tastes. It resembles the groaning board of Northern Europe more than the coffee-and-roll nibble favored in most of the Mediterranean countries.
Kibbutzniks, who rise before dawn to go into the fields for a long morning's work, learned to fill up on hearty products of their communal farms -- cheeses, yogurt, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, eggs. The hotels borrowed the idea for their "dairy breakfast" -- religious laws bar the serving of meat with milk products, and there is no meat at the traditional Israeli breakfast table.
"It was a good way to show off Israeli products," said Dov Shiff, manager of the Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, "and the things that were served were locally grown and inexpensive. But the British were used to sausage or ham or bacon, so for them we began to offer fish, because we couldn't give them meat."
For the American tourists, stewed fruits were added, and cereals -- one can usually find cornflakes somewhere among the myriad dishes. Imported cornflakes cost $2 a box, and smoked salmon is as expensive in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, as in Beverly Hills. Even tourists paying with dollars can't escape spiraling prices in an Israel where inflation is now nearing 100 percent a year.
"The value of the dollar didn't go up as fast as the costs did, "Shiff said.
When the government recently cut back on subsidies for many staples and prices rose dramatically as a result, the hotel owners realized they had to economize somewhere. Shmuel Federman, president of the Israel Hotel Owners Association, said that after consultation with the country's tour operators it was decided to cut out the big breakfast buffets that hotels had offered as part of "B and B" -- bed and breakfast.
Many hotels, he said, now will offer what they call a "sabra breakfast" as the free meal included in the night's rent. The sabra, a cactus, has come to mean native-born. In this case, however, it is the Continental breakfast by another name.
The biggest hotels don't plan to discontinue the buffet -- they will just charge extra for it. The buffet breakfast at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and President Carter stayed, sells for $5 and may be going up. At the Jerusalem Hilton, the tour of the buffet is $5.75.
Israeli hotels cost as much as those in Europe now, with five-star hotels charging $60 to $65 for a single room and smaller hotels about $50.
The three- and four-star hotels will simply phase out the big breakfast. There was too much waste, and, to put it politely, overindulgence. "Tourists as well as Israelis would load up from the buffet and make sandwiches to see them through the day," one hotel manager explained. "If we asked them what they were doing, they would say something like, 'I'm taking it upstairs to my wife.'"
No longer will a guest stride from the dining room with a pocketful of herring sandwiches -- to eat, perhaps, on the ramparts of Masada. Masada remains, but the Israeli breakfast has been nibbled away by inflation.