Israeli Vegan Restaurant Coming to Gay Street (Plus a Ticket Giveaway!)

It wasn’t that long ago that much of the food available in downtown Knoxville fell generally into one “American” category or another. There were exceptions, but not many. In the last several years we’ve had a mix of entries into the culinary landscape that have expanded our international palette. The newest checks off two significant boxes at once.

Kopita Falafel and Hummus Bar plans to open next month at 524 South Gay Street, the former home of Coolato Gelato. The new casual restaurant will bring an all-Israeli based menu and all the items included will be vegan. “Upscale Israeli street food,” is the goal and the restaurant is backed by a partnership that should be able to deliver an excellent product.

The wheels were set in motion when chef Paul Sellas left Rebel Kitchen earlier this spring. He and Franchesca, at the invitation of Shawn Poynter and Dale Mackey, owners of Central Collective, returned to their pop-up dinners under the brand Table Forty9. They have a scheduled pasta class tonight, The French Table dinner Thursday night and a stocks and sauces class Monday night.

The classes allowed them to re-connect with the regular customers Paul’s food had attracted in his previous pop-up dinners and at the restaurant. Among those regular customers and fans of his work were Avi Zenatti and his wife, Ilana Brodt. Born and raised in Israel, the couple had grown to love his work and were dismayed when they learned that Paul and Franchesca were considering a return move to Florida.

Hot Hummus, Photo Avi Zenatti

What followed was a proposal from Avi and Ilana that the two couples become partners in a venture Avi and Ilana had long considered. The couple immigrated from Israel in 2007 and began investing in properties in Florida, where they resided. Ilana had a property in Knoxville and the couple began to invest more in the city, began to visit more often and, ultimately, purchased a downtown home.

Avi says the couple are devoted foodies, routinely planning trips around the world centered on food. They travel twice a year to Morocco, for example, simply to enjoy the food. They also enjoy Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chef Dan Barber’s exclusive restaurant in upstate New York. They regularly travel to Italy for the food.

Avi and Illana invited Paul and Francesca to their Gay Street home and prepared babaganoush, hummus, falafels and other dishes. Paul connected through his Greek/Mediterranean background and the healthy food they try to feed their own family. Franchesca had helped open Green Sage in Asheville and Paul had stepped into the kitchen there when they needed help. They knew this food was the real thing and when offered a partnership, Paul and Franchesca began to feel Avi and Ilana’s excitement for bringing authentic, organic Israeli food to Gay Street.

Kopita Buildout Underway, 524 South Gay Street, Knoxville, May 2019

Both the pita and the tahini will be imported from Israel. Avi says it is the Pita used by the best kitchens in major cities around the world. The tahini is expensive, but, Avi says, is worth the price. The vegetables for the dishes will come exclusively from local farmers. Paul and Francesca are excited to continue relationships they have developed over recent years and to expand on those. Farmers and their stories will be highlighted on the walls of the restaurant.

Avi said the food will be fully vegan and genuinely organic, while insisting that much that is promoted as organic really isn’t. The food, he insists will be both healthy and affordable. The salads will change with available ingredients through the year. You’ll find olive oil, salt and lemon for a salad topping, but not American dressings.

Everything will be made fresh and from scratch and spices used will be middle eastern. You’ll find three different kinds of hummus and freshly made falafel each day. Hot hummus will be featured, which involves boiling the chickpeas all night. It is served in a bowl with pita for dipping. They will grind chickpeas fresh every morning and use safflower oil.

He describes the changes in Knoxville’s culinary scene in recent years as an awakening, citing J.C. Holdway, Emelia, The Oliver Royale and Rebel Kitchen as examples of the way Knoxville has improved its food options. When he learned Paul and Francesca might move away, he flew here from Florida in an attempt to get them to stay. His dream has been to open something healthy and different.

Hot Hummus, Photo Avi Zenatti

He feels that Paul’s unique personality and skills can lift the Israeli street food to an upscale level the city is ready for. That said, it will be food that can be enjoyed and share around the counter at the restaurant or taken home and it will come with a modest price tag of $10 to $12 for a meal.

The restaurant will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 AM to 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM depending on demand, with shorter hours on Sunday. He says they may be open later on event nights. Interior design is by DIA.

“We understand good food.” Saying he doesn’t see Knoxville restaurateurs as competitors, he said, “We want to bring the energy for good food from Nashville and Asheville. It’s exciting to do business here.” Look for them to start doing that business here sometime next month.

Ticket Giveaway: Rick Bragg is coming to Knoxville next week (May 21, Bijou Theatre) for a night of reading, conversation and fun in support of his new book Home Cookin’ with Rick Bragg. If you haven’t heard him speak before, you owe it to yourself for a very funny evening with a master story teller, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of All Over But the Shoutin’. Tickets are only $30 and may be purchased here. For a lucky reader, here’s your chance to win two tickets courtesy of sponsors, Friends of the Knox County Public Library: Send an email to with the subject heading “I want to Cook with Rick!” I’ll randomly select a winner for a pair of tickets and I’ll inform the winner via email.


  1. Sabrina DeVault-Greene says

    I am so excited about this! It’s about time!

  2. Will Skelton says

    I hope they have a lot more than falafels and hummus, Yassin’s Falafel House already does a great job with those and we don’t really need more downtown.

    • Agreed. They’re going to have to have something unique to make it. Otherwise, Yassin’s will be eating their falafel…figuratively.

      • Will Skelton says

        It is surprising that they seem to be simply trying to duplicate an already present and successful restaurant downtown; I’ve been to Israel and there’s lots of other things they could do or maybe a restaurant focusing on a variety of world wide cuisine since they’ve traveled a lot.

    • I agree that Yassin’s is amazing – but hummus comes in many ways, shapes, and forms – and there is more to israeli food than hummus and falafel – michael solomonov has 6 (soon to be 7!) israeli restaurants in philadelphia – and 4 of them on the same block!

      • Philadelphia has a population roughly 7.5 times larger than Knoxville. So, I’m not sure if that’s an ideal comparison. Of course not all hummus or falafel is the same, however, it’s similar enough that they’ll need to be careful to set themselves apart.

  3. Greg Schweiger says

    I’m all for competition in the Middle eastern food sphere. You can never have enough falafel.

  4. Is it just me? With all the new ( and sometimes closing) restaurants around downtown, I feel like it’s hard to keep up since Google maps doesn’t.

    Side note Alan… was there any updates to Randy Burleson’s plans to open 2 new restaurants in Happy Holler? We anxiously watch the construction at corner of Central & Anderson continue to stall. ☹

  5. TYSfoodie says

    Will this be a kosher restaurant?

  6. Shaun Phillips says

    I was not aware that Paul Sellas had left Rebel Kitchen. Was he not the owner as well?

  7. How wonderful! Vegan! I was going to at last go west to Sanctuary for mothers day but they were closed on Sunday. Now, I can walk and LOVE the patio-!!! I hope the ambience is a cut above so many places around here-

  8. Samyah Jubran says

    With all due respect to the owners of this new DT restaurant, the chef, and the author of this article, who I’m sure are all wonderful people, I think the article and the menu should clarify that falafel, hummus, and baba ghanouj are Middle Eastern/Arabic (Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, etc.) foods that will be served. While I realize that these foods are served in Israel, they are of Arabic origin and the public should be made aware of this fact. My mom (Renee Jubran), born in 1937 in Palestine and owner of The Falafel Hut Restaurant which she operated in Knoxville for 25 years, can attest to this fact 🙂

    • Many Israelis are of Arabic origin, I fail to see your point? Israel is in the same region as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, etc. so clearly their food would be the same. An Egyptian restaurant would call these foods Egyptian. A Syrian restaurant would call them Syrian. People seem to forget that the majority of Israelis are Arab Jews…🤷🏻‍♀️

  9. To call hummus and falafel Israeli foods is factually wrong and only serves to perpetuate the larger problem of appropriation of Palestinian culture, deliberately manufactured by some Israelis to ensure the complete erasure of the long and rich history of Palestinians in the region.
    The exclusive claim of these foods as being Israeli, and the complete omission of historical Palestinian/Arab culinary contributions amounts to abetting the cultural theft and total disregard and insensitivity those who may have otherwise patronized this establishment. I would ask you to reconsider the unsubstantiated claim of your add and act accordingly so as to not alienate a potentially substantial clientele.

  10. Dimitri Shreckengost says

    There is an old East Tennessee saying: “your cat can have kittens in the oven, but that doesn’t make them biscuits. “ Falafel and hummus aren’t Israeli food. Neither is baba ghannouj. Or shakahouka. They’re Arabic as can be, and broadly Levantine, but in this case, specifically
    Palestinian We don’t say that pizza is American or that boeuf Bourguinon is American. So, please do not patronize businesses that deny Palestinian existence and which commit cultural expropriation and erasure. Israeli food is gefilte fisch, bagels, kreplachs and borscht, brought there by the Ashkenazi European immigrants. No one denies that. And spare me the “whataboutism” of Arab/Mizrahi/Sfardi Jews … who have been included only for manipulating population numbers inside the Green Line, but who were also immediately marginalized and denigrated by the European Jewish power structure for being accultured as Arabs. Just acknowledge Palestinian food’s true origins. That’s not too much to ask. Palestinian vegan dishes were vegan before being vegan was cool. Tabbouleh, fattoush, bamies, waraq, loubieh, fooul, falafel, and much, much more came
    from Palestine even before the Ottomans. Occupiers come and go…. Palestine’s food and the culture , like its people, remain.

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