(Note: The Cardo Culinaria is where I was “tricked” into eating duck for the first and only time by thinking it was lamb. Liked the taste, but still can’t emotionally accept the idea of eating Donald or Daffy. Moreover, I LOVED the idea of archeologists running their own restaurant. Sadly, this kitschy tourist attraction went out of business years ago. Consider this travel story, originally published in 1997 by the Robb Report, a loving memorial tribute.)
JERUSALEM’S UPSCALE ROMAN MUNCHIES: A FIRST CENTURY DINING EXPERIENCE
By Darren Garnick
JERUSALEM – When conquered by Rome, eat what the Romans eat.
That was likely the philosophy of some Jerusalem restaurants eager to curry favor with Caesar’s army after it trampled the Holy City more than 2,000 years ago.
The Roman soldiers are long gone, but a group of quirky Israeli archeologists have brought their taste buds back. Promising an authentic “First Century Dining Experience,” the Cardo Culinaria only serves roasted duck, chicken and lamb — dishes preferred by the Roman-Judaean chefs at the time. Beer, regarded as the “drink of barbarians,” is eschewed in favor of wine.
Customers are assumed to be pro-Emperor and enjoy royal fringe benefits. Servants, known elsewhere as waiters and waitresses, hand-feed grapes to guests and fan them with large palm fronds. Soothing harp music is played during the meal with fire eaters and jugglers entertaining between courses.
There are other Roman theme restaurants around the globe – most are concentrated in gluttonous Atlantic City and Las Vegas – but the Culinaria has more clout to claim authenticity. The restaurant sits on the ruins of the Old Roman Cardo, the main drag of Jerusalem in 63 BC where Roman troops socialized and made their military headquarters when modern day Israel was known as Judaea. Visitors walk through excavated Cardo columns on their way to the restaurant’s entrance.
Though pegged as a tourist spot, the food at the Cardo Culinaria is surprisingly upscale. Keeping in line with the Roman feast tradition, portions are generous and most foods are all-you-can-eat.
The schlock factor can be adjusted to individual tastes. Diners are invited to wear violet and golden togas over their clothing, Caesar laurels in their hair, and Trojan helmets breastplates for silly photos after dessert. But unlike in the real Roman Empire, there is no coercion to assimilate. Business suits are not sent to the lions.
When the restaurant first opened in 1989, forks were not provided because the Romans only used knives and spoons. Semi-sweet carob juice was also served instead of lemonade. But modern customer tastes forced modern concessions. Owners did not want to run a historically-accurate restaurant with empty tables.
“In the beginning, we had hired a chef to best duplicate the recipes and cooking styles of 2,000 years ago,” recalls manager Rafi Nahum. “We served the food and people said, ‘This is very interesting.’”
“We knew the moment that people were calling our food ‘interesting,’ it didn’t taste good,” he adds.
Small two-pronged forks were soon introduced after it became clear that customers hated to eat with their hands. According to the Cardo Culinaria menu, which is more of a crash history course than food guide, there have been some significant beverage compromises, too:
“Water supplies of the ancient world were generally not fit to drink, but as a concession to modern taste, we will provide water on request. Beer was considered the drink of the barbarians and was not drunk in Rome. However, malt beer was widely available in Judaea and will be served with some meals.”
Harpist Betty Klein concedes that the Cardo sometimes has no choice but to fudge with history a bit.
“Unfortunately, we can’t recapture the music because we don’t know what it was like. We can kind of guess different intervals, but the Romans didn’t leave any records for us,” she says. “I’m kind of doing this blindly.”