When Uri Jeremias, the legendary Israeli chef who looks like Santa Claus, first settled in Acre, “most of my friends looked at me like I was crazy,” he recalled with a Clausian chuckle.

Jeremias is having the last laugh. His eponymous Acre restaurant, Uri Buri, was recently ranked Best Fine Dining Restaurant in the Middle East on Trip Advisor. Its success over nearly three decades has catapulted Jeremias to global culinary stardom; he recently cooked alongside Alon Shaya in Miami at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival, and with Michael Solomonov at Philadelphia’s Israeli hot spot, Zahav.

But for Jeremias, the true payoff is in finally bringing attention to the long-neglected city of Acre (pronounced: Akker; Akko in Hebrew), about which he is as effusive as a lover. “It’s unbelievable,” Jeremias told me recently as he prepped for a lavish dinner of seafood, his specialty, at Zahav during a weeklong swing around Philadelphia. “We could talk three hours and we could not finish talking about Akko.”

One of the world’s oldest cities, Acre occupies a spit of land on a natural harbor north of Haifa that has the lowest sea level in the eastern Mediterranean. The city’s longtime status as a crossroads of trade and cultures is a point of pride for its 50,000 residents.

But while the city attracted everyone from the Greeks and Romans to the Moors, Crusaders and Ottomans, it took awhile for modern tourists to discover Acre. Jeremias can take a lot of the credit: Along with the Efendi Hotel next door — a pet project for which Jeremias oversaw an archaeologically delicate renovation — Uri Buri helped put Acre on the traveler’s map.

One of the world’s oldest cities, Acre occupies a spit of land on a natural harbor north of Haifa that has the lowest sea level in the eastern Mediterranean. The city’s longtime status as a crossroads of trade and cultures is a point of pride for its 50,000 residents.

A 90-minute drive north of Tel Aviv, Acre is the urban jewel of Israel’s Western Galilee and has a more relaxed, less politically charged feel than its neighbors to the south. That mellow vibe may be due to a unique ethnic mix; Acre boasts significant communities representing virtually every Abrahamic tradition, from Jews, Muslims and Christians to Druze and Baha’i.

Today this cosmopolitanism is key to the city’s charm. But many were skeptical in the 1980s when a Jewish cook restored an Ottoman palace and opened a high-end eatery in Acre’s shabby historic district. Jeremias is frank about the mutual mistrust that shadowed Jewish relations with Arabs, who make up 95 percent of the Old City’s population.

But the chef never doubted his instinct — and the restaurant took off, drawing foodies from Israel and beyond for seafood accented with coriander, fenugreek, arak and wasabi. The menu reflects a local food culture with roots both ancient — Acre’s outdoor spice market is a must-see attraction — and modern, as in the 52 wineries within an hour’s drive. And this culinary scene has spawned not only a lively viticulture, but also an ambitious crop of dairy farms, distilleries and restaurants throughout the fertile Western Galilee.

With heightened curiosity from travelers, Jeremias recently teamed up with the historian Efraim Lev for the Acre & Western Galilee Crusaders Seminar, four-day tours to immerse visitors in Acre’s distinctive culture. A typical day might include a guided market tour with Jeremias, a belly-dancing workshop, a seminar about medieval Arabic medicine, and an evening sommelier-led wine tasting capped off by a performance of traditional Galilee music. 

“Akko is a model of coexistence, not just for Israel but for the whole world.”

Why Crusaders? Acre was the capital of the 13th-century Second Crusader Kingdom, a legacy that is excavated every year in ancient walls and tunnels, and celebrated in the city’s cultural renewal. In August, the courtyards of Acre’s Crusaders fortress ruins will be the setting for a new production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” as the city hosts the Israeli Opera Festival.

And when Jeremias’s team undertook the building of the Efendi Hotel, they did so in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority — restoring a thousand-year-old vaulted cellar into a wine bar, flying in Italian artisans to restore Ottoman-era frescoes, and preserving a 400-year-old Turkish hamam as the centerpiece of the hotel’s spa.

Today the view from Efendi’s terrace looks over fortress walls to minarets and the blue Mediterranean, a vista both eternal and emblematic of the region.

“Akko is a model of coexistence, not just for Israel but for the whole world,” Jeremias told me as he rolled up his sleeves for dinner. “Arabs and Jews are living together, and Christians and Baha’i, and in Akko everybody is living in peace with the others. And this is a very unusual thing.”