TEL AVIV -- From the outside, with its rusting red neon sign advertising Carmel wine and modest awning lettered in Hebrew, it looks like any of a score of the small ethnic restaurants in this self-consciously cosmopolitan city. Most Israelis wandering by don't venture inside, and tourists often don't even recognize it as a restaurant.
That is just the kind of easy-going camouflage the clients of the Olympia Restaurant appreciate. For this Balkan emporium is Israel's premier power-lunch nexus, a cramped cafe-cum-club where the country's elite come to mix and relax in the long, hot hours of the Mediterranean afternoon.
Like its counterparts in Washington, the Olympia is a place to be seen, a place to do business, and a place to prove one's ability to get a table. On a typical Thursday or Friday afternoon, all 100 seats are taken and the restaurant is crammed with much-televised faces and renowned names: generals, ministers, industrialists, journalists, spies and the occasional comedian or actor.
Yet in Israel, a small country with an even tinier establishment, lunch at Olympia is more than expense-account fodder. At once cheap and exclusive, noisy and protected, it is a place where one discovers that, despite its bitter political divisions and never-ending crises, Israel's leadership retains the culture of a big, rough family.
"This is a place where the left, the center and the right can come and meet and talk and be friends, without ever admitting that they met and with none of the screaming that goes on in the Knesset," the parliament, said Moshe Frances, Olympia's suitably bluff and hearty manager. "And they feel at home because there is an unwritten rule in this place: Nothing from here leaks to the outside."
So it seems. At a typical Thursday lunch, the crowd included the wife and press secretary of Yitzhak Rabin, the recently departed Labor Party defense minister and an Olympia regular since the 1960s; an ambitious young minister from the rival Likud Party, Ronnie Milo; an aide to Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon; the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, who is hosting the visiting mayor of Portland, Ore.; the ambassador of Colombia; the owner of a major textile firm; the developer of a popular Red Sea resort hotel; a well-known singer; a former general manager of state television; a senior political writer from the newspaper Haaretz -- and Olympia's most regular customer, Eliezer Jiraban, an advertising executive and longtime intimate of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Most of the crowd arrived by 1:30, and many stayed until after 3, crunching after-lunch nuts, sipping coffee and skipping from table to table. On Friday afternoon, when secular Tel Aviv winds down for the weekend, the room is packed until after 4, and both the drinks and fraternity are stronger. "Friday afternoon," Frances said, "is a club -- the same people have been coming every week for years."
The homey atmosphere is carefully cultivated. Although Frances recently redecorated the place with upscale touches, installing rose curtains and tablecloths and a new honeycomb of soundproofing on the ceiling, the tables are still intimately jammed together and the drugstore-style bar at the back is unchanged. Service is provided by a couple of dowdy, middle-aged men in aprons and slicked-back hair who shout back and forth with Frances in Ladino, the traditional Spanish dialect spoken by Balkan Jews.
At intervals, the door opens and a new group comes in, the men in light slacks and short sleeves, the women more dressy in scarves and designer sunglasses. Eyes scan the room, locating contacts; soon, kisses and backslaps are exchanged and spaces magically appear among the crowded tables. There are no reservations and few empty tables, yet rarely does a regular have to wait; only a stranger is likely to be turned away.
It is of course a family-owned place, and as Israel would have it, there is a complicated tale of family rivalries behind it. The business was first founded by Shabtai Frances, a prewar immigrant from Greece, along with his wife Rivka and her brother and uncle. In the early 1950s, the family moved to the business district then developing near the sprawling compound of the Defense Ministry and opened Akropolis, a Balkan restaurant that was adopted by the circle of Moshe Dayan, Israel's best-loved general.
Then, in the early 1960s, the partnership split up. While Shabtai Frances left Akropolis to open Olympia, two blocks away, an uncle split off and set up the neighborhood's third Balkan joint, Triana. Since then the three family factions, and their descendants, have competed over the delicacy of their black olives and the cachet of their clientele, with ascendancy subtly shifting among Akropolis, Olympia and Triana with the ebb and flow of political seasons.
For now, say those who regularly make the circuit in and around Carlibach Street, Olympia has the edge. "It used to be very competitive among the three restaurants, but now we have a very good relationship," said Moshe Frances, 46, Shabtai's son. "If someone goes to Akropolis, I'm not complaining, and vice versa. A lot of people go to all three places." He paused. "Of course, I think you would find that for most people we're the first choice."
To prove his point, Frances dug out a worn leather guestbook, and, between conversations on the ever-ringing telephone, showed off his collection of autographs. In addition to most of Israel's major political figures in the past quarter century, it includes signatures of Walter Cronkite, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, soccer star Pele, Leonard Bernstein and Idi Amin.
"Of course," Frances said, "you have to know how and where to seat people. That's usually the most delicate problem."