Some years ago on a brutally cold winter night, I was having Sunday dinner at Moishes Steakhouse in Montreal, a long-established popular spot among the Jewish community there. Something was happening in the dining room that I’d never seen before. Amid the chandeliers and Old World decor, the clientele was table-hopping during dinner like it was a private event, greeting old friends at one spot, moving to another. They were doing that glance-over-the-shoulder bit that some people do at parties to make sure they’re not missing anyone more important than the person they’re talking to.
I saw it again recently in Boston on a Friday night at the seven-month-old Cafe Landwer in Audubon Circle. Families are going from table to table, kids in tow — the kids just as interested as their parents in this activity — except that these spontaneous conversations are conducted in Hebrew. The cafe seems to be party central for local Israeli-born residents.
For them, it’s a taste of home. Cafe Landwer has 75 locations in Israel, says Israeli owner Nir Caspi, who expects to open a second Boston spot in Cleveland Circle on July 16.
The entrance to the Audubon Circle cafe, in the space that was Elephant Walk, is fronted by a spacious patio. Because of the configuration of the sidewalk on this end of Beacon Street (near the Brookline line), outdoor seating is set way back so it’s more private than other restaurant seating up and down the street.
Moshe Landwer opened the first Landwer coffeehouse in Berlin in 1919. He moved the business to Tel Aviv in 1933 and became a coffee roaster. Today, Landwer has two branches that are separate but work together, explains Caspi, one that roasts coffee and one that operates the cafes.
They’re open all day and serve breakfast until 2 p.m., a spread that includes Landwer’s Famous Breakfast. Along with eggs, you get a tray filled with surprises. Ramekins hold Middle Eastern labneh (think yogurt) with za’atar and chickpeas, there’s an eggplant spread something like baba ghanoush, mashed avocado, tuna salad, feta, side salad, Greek yogurt with granola, jam, and a very good multigrain roll. It’s a crunchy, creamy, rich mosaic.
In Israel, says Caspi, to begin the day, “people like all those small things, very fresh, mostly vegetables.”
Landwer’s menu dishes up many of Israel’s greatest hits: several versions of shakshouka, the spicy tomato-based dish in which eggs are poached, and a popular sandwich, sabiche flatbread with charred eggplant and egg. Some things are just plain odd to find here: Margherita pizza, chicken and pesto pasta, vegan French stew with “soy strips.”
Everything here is outsize. A mezza plate of souk hummus (souk is the word for bazaar), topped with large falafel and served with thick warm pita, is enormous. It’s very smooth hummus with irresistible warm bread; the falafel rounds are crisp outside but dissappointingly dry when you bite into them, and bland. There’s a fine, crisp chicken schnitzel, even if the coating falls off with the touch of a knife.
Like the breakfast tray, sinia (seen-ee-ya) kebab, an array of meat and veggies served on flatbread, is fun to eat. Dough has been draped inside an individual round baking dish. When it bakes, the edges puff while the bottom stays flat. (The menu says that the bread is focaccia, though it looks and eats more like pita.) Small beef meatballs, broiled eggplant, roasted tomatoes, slabs of red onion, tahini, and chickpeas fill the center. The dish, which comes with chopped salad, is brimming with flavor. But one day at lunch the meatballs are juicy and delicious, on another they’ve seen better days, as if they had sat around and were reheated hours later.
Landwer is across Beacon Street and within shouting distance of a now well-established competitor, Tatte Bakery & Cafe, opened by Israeli-born Tzurit Or. Where Landwer colors are muted brown, red, and yellow, with schoolhouse lights, and red banquettes, Tatte, which is undergoing a rapid expansion here, feels more authentically Old World with its wood-topped tables, traditional black-and-white tiling, and dramatic Phantom of the Opera chandeliers in some locations (the owner had an earlier career as a film producer).
Whoever is training staff at Landwer deserves an accolade. Young servers are delightful and friendly and when they forget something, any of the others seems willing to step in. One greets a table of Israelis in Hebrew and they’re enchanted. She picked it up from Hebrew-speaking waiters she works with, she tells them.
Let the party begin.
900 Beacon St., Audubon Circle, Boston, 857-753-4035, www.landwercafe.com