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Vancouver's Bar Haifa is a 'love letter' to co-owners' Jewish and Palestinian roots

VANCOUVER — The collaborators behind restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto have Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli roots, and acknowledge they don't always agree.
Fadi Hakim, left, and Jason Hemi are pictured at Bar Haifa in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

VANCOUVER — The collaborators behind restaurants in Vancouver and Toronto have Palestinian, Jewish and Israeli roots, and acknowledge they don't always agree.

"Imagine 38 tastings for a falafel, and they would end up with like, blowups," co-owner Fadi Hakim says.

The team behind Toronto's Haifa Room now have a new venue, Bar Haifa, in downtown Vancouver. 

It opened on Nov. 24, just a few weeks after attacks in Israel by Hamas and the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Hakim says he and fellow restaurateurs Waseem Dabdoub, Mark Kupfert and Joseph Eastwood had always talked about opening a Middle Eastern restaurant, but they didn't set out thinking their collaboration was "a Palestinian-Israeli thing."

The two restaurants, their menus and ingredients do, however, represent "a love letter to where we're from and how we grew up and how we ate," he says.

"For us, we were content with just having a place that we could eat at all the time, eat our parents' food, literally, and just eat really good Middle Eastern food."

Hakim's Palestinian father hails from the coastal city of Haifa. Dabdoub's father is Palestinian, while Kupfert is Jewish from Montreal and Eastwood was born in Israel. 

The team has also recruited executive chef Jason Hemi, who cut his teeth in French fine dining establishments but found his culinary home working at a Tel Aviv restaurant with "kibbutz-style" communal tables.

Hakim says the team originally planned to open Bar Haifa earlier last fall, but they ran into snags before finally setting the late November date.

The opening came in the wake of the attacks in which Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 200 hostage in southern Israel. 

Israel has responded with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, insisting its attacks are intended to take out Hamas and its supporters, not civilians. The health ministry in Gaza, which operates under Hamas, says more than 24,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The Bar Haifa team members have family living in the region, and Hakim says they struggled with what to say about "the worst thing that could possibly happen."

They came up with a public statement.

"The Haifa Room is owned by both Palestinians and Israelis and we have many family members living in Israel and Palestine," they said on Instagram. "Our hearts and thoughts go out to all the innocent civilians in the land we love. We are heartbroken."

But they declined to speak with reporters who showed up in Toronto seeking comments about the Oct. 7 attacks.

"We politely turned them down … We serve humus," saysHakim.

"All we can really say is just, come in, come one, come all, break some bread."

There are some "differing opinions" among the team members, Hakim says, but they have to work together, and ultimately, they're like "brothers."

Chef Hemi had been working at another Toronto restaurant for just a few weeks at the tail end of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he heard the founders of the fledgling Haifa Room were looking for a chef specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine.

He hadn't been looking for a change, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity.

"If I was going to make a dream menu, it would be this menu anyways," he says.

Hemi has since relocated to Vancouver, becoming a co-owner of Bar Haifa. He says the new offering is a "finer service" than its more laid-back counterpart in Toronto.

The menu features an array of side dishes and small plates, from the seasonal humus — currently served with Brussels sprouts, pistachio gastrique and zhug, a hot sauce with roots in Yemen — to roasted root vegetables with smoked labneh.

There's also shakshuka and sabich — a pita packed with fried eggplant, cabbage and a soft-boiled egg — as well as a rotating fish dish, several offerings with chicken, and shipud, a  strip loin skewer with caramelized fennel and shallots.

Hemi is particularly proud of the boneless lamb shoulder, cooked sous vide for 24-hours and served with shawarma spice, herb tahini and garlic sauce.

Hemi says he's never before had customers thank him for opening a restaurant, but people have come into Bar Haifa, saying, "the world needs this, the city needs this."

"They believe in what we believe in," he says.

Mostly, though, Hemi says they just want to serve delicious, thoughtful meals.

"It's cool that we work together and we all come from different backgrounds, but also, we want to have a good restaurant."

As for that contentious falafel recipe for the Haifa Room? "Everybody's mom has the best falafel recipe, the best humus recipe," Hakim says.

The discussions were heated, he says, but "that's what family does."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2024.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press