Istanbul. Countless, effusive words have been written about this glorious city, many lapsing into the usual (but entirely forgivable) clichés about it being a city where Europe meets Asia, ancient empires collide with modern sophistication, piety mingles with determined secularism, et cetera. Little wonder. Few cities can rival Istanbul for physical beauty, extraordinary atmosphere, wealth of attractions and mix of cultural influences.
It’s got a skyline like no other and picturesque waterways that rival Hong Kong’s harbour. There are historic monuments to match Rome’s and fin-de-siècle streetscapes as special as any in Paris or Vienna. And then there’s the food. Turkish cuisine generally, and Istanbullu food in particular, is one of the world’s best-kept secrets – although word is quickly getting around.
Forged over countless centuries, the native cuisine of Istanbul was, like the city itself, forged in a fascinating polyglot stew. The refinement of the Ottoman palace kitchens, immigrant Greek, Balkan, Armenian and Jewish populations and, latterly, influxes from remote corners of Anatolia, have all informed Istanbul’s diet. Linking these disparate elements is the Turkish predilection for fresh, seasonal produce, simple cooking methods (stewing and grilling are most common), a fondness for grains, dried pulses and legumes, and an addiction to thick, rich yoghurt and clotted cream (called kaymak), stuffed vegetables, baklava and silky, milky puddings
In keeping with its rising status as the darling of the jetsetters, Istanbul has a growing clique of chichi restaurants, many with spectacular Bosphorus views, extensive cocktail lists and “international” menus. These places are all well and good, but the true joys of dining in Istanbul lie in its neighbourhood meyhanes (taverns where food is accompanied by copious raki, local firewater), lokantasi (canteens for the working class where pre-prepared food is served from a bain-marie), and specialist places such as the numerous balikçi for fish, kepabçi for kebabs or börekçi for a variety of börek, the famous savoury Turkish pastry.
Many Istanbul dining establishments are institutions and locals will traverse the city to patronise those to which they feel a strong allegiance. Luckily for visitors, highly efficient public transport and cheap, plentiful taxis mean they, too, can join the dinner rush wherever the whim or restaurant recommendation may take them.
Because this is Istanbul, the search for a great dining experience is also likely to be an adventure. It could track a path up the Bosphorus, with its old yalis (wooden houses) and vistas over the legendary strait. Or it might involve a commuter ferry trip to the “Asian side”, earthy ethnic enclaves where tourists rarely go. Or one might find oneself pleasantly lost in the time-warped warren of Beyoglu, for centuries the home of foreign traders and diplomats. Their influence still echoes along its steep, packed and picturesque streets.
From a humble mackerel sandwich eaten dockside with Istanbul's signature seagulls and fishermen, to an elaborate feast inspired by Ottoman-era finesse, there is a confusion of dining options in Istanbul. The following, loosely arranged according to location, offers a few starting points for gastronomic discoveries in this most compelling and unique of cities. So, as they say in these parts, afiyet olsun – enjoy your meal!
SULTANAHMET, THE GRAND AND SPICE BAZAARS
The Old City has more than its share of sights and many dining options here are geared toward tourists – meaning ho-hum food, so-so service and over-the-odds prices . You have to work hard to find the better places to eat – but they are there.
KiliÇilar Sokak 48, Çemberlitas. (212) 522 4762
Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is enormous fun, but utterly exhausting. In-the-know locals and shopkeepers have been refuelling at SubaŞi since it opened in 1959. There are just a handful of tables so go early (or late) for lunch (they close at 5pm) to snaffle one, or be prepared to share. The food is home-style, flavoursome and great value.
Tahmis Caddesi KalÇin Sokak, EminÖnü. (212) 528 0390. www.hamdirestorant.com.tr
Hamdi Arpaci presides over a bustling restaurant favoured by locals and tourists alike. The specialty is kebabs and they dozens of different types – those involving minced meat use best-quality lamb, hand-chopped with a special knife. Seasoning kebabs is considered an art and Arpaci uses ingredients, such as sun-dried paprika, from his hometown of Şanliurfa in the south.
Keresteci Hakkı Sokak, Cankurtaran, Ahırkapı. (212) 458 2270. www.giritlirestoran.com
The food here is Cretan (Girit means Crete) and the chef-owner oversees the kitchen herself, despite this being an offshoot of her restaurant in Bodrum. Some can’t stand the fixed-price policy and it’s not cheap at about 90 Turkish lira ($74) per head. But for that you get four courses of sublime food, including mezes featuring wild herbs and foraged greens from the Aegean region. Main courses involve fresh, simply cooked seafood and there’s unlimited local wine and raki.
Seyit Hasan Kuyu Sokak 1, Sultanahmet. (212) 458 1824. www. balikcisabahattin.com
For 40 years, this family-run, upmarket fish restaurant has kept customers happy with their great starters (the pilaf with mussels and raw marinated sea bass are particularly memorable) and fantastic selection of seafood mains. Leave yourself in the hands of the capable staff and they’ll bring you all that’s best on the day. In cooler weather the old interior (built in 1927) is cozy, while in summer the place to be is outdoors, with the throngs of hopeful street cats.
THE NEW CITY
The 19th and early 20th-century apartment blocks lend a Parisian air to the New City over the Galata Bridge. Explore Çukurcuma's antique shops, the restaurants and bars of Pera, boho Tünel and the intriguing covered arcades off the Istiklal Caddesi shopping strip.
Van Kahvalti Evi
Kılıç Ali Paşa Mah, Defterdar Yokuşu 52a, Cihangir. (212) 293 6437
In Van, a Kurdish city near the Iranian border, they take breakfast seriously. If you’re unconvinced by the Turkish way to start the day (salty white cheese, olives, tomato, cucumber and bread), this place could change your mind. Much of the produce is organic and some is flown in from Van itself. Choose one of their assembled plates for a good assortment, including the famed Van “grassy” cheese, specked with herbs, and delicious Van honey. Van Kahvalti Evi is handy to the antique shops of Çukurcuma.
Asmalı Mescit Mah, Minare Sok 21a, Beyoğlu. (212) 292 1100. www.antiochiaconcept.com
Brother/sister team Süleyman Gülüm and Jale Balcı (she’s a leading food writer/stylist; he’s a total perfectionist) run this popular restaurant. They’re passionate about the distinctive food of their home town, Antakya, near the Syrian border. The menu is small and features carefully chosen ingredients (many from boutique producers in Antakya). Leave room for the candied green walnuts, also sold preserved in jars to take away.
Asmalı Mescit, Sofyali Sok 9, Tünel. (212) 245 0362 www.sofyali.com.tr
One of the best meyhanes in town. Tempting though it is to fill up on hot and cold starters (cheese börek, artichokes in olive oil, stuffed vine leaves, eggplant salad and the like), leave room for the well-executed mains – mostly simple grills of fish or meat. If you can’t get a table, try the equally excellent Refik (Sofyalı Sok 10-12), haunt of leftist journos and intellectuals since 1954.
Istiklal Caddesi 173, Beyoğlu. (212) 292 3434 www.saraymuhallebicisi.com
No one fails to be intrigued by tavuk gogsu, the creamy “chicken-breast pudding” for which Istanbul is famous, and which they’ve served here since 1949. Other sweet classics include sutlac (baked rice pudding) and asure, a traditional Anatolian sweet with wheat kernels, chickpeas, raisins and pomegranate seeds.
Asmalı Mescit Mah, Minare Sok 1, Beyoğlu. (212) 252 6060 www.asmalicanimcigerim.com
If you don’t care for liver (ciğer means “liver”), they also serve delicious barbecued lamb. These are the only two menu options at this compact restaurant just a few steps from Istiklal Caddesi. You get 10 skewers of succulent lamb (or liver), cooked over coals with lamb-tail fat and served with smoky, charred vegetables (tomato, onion, peppers), homemade tomato relish, cured onions with sumac and a stack of fresh herbs and leaves. Heaven.
Istiridye Balik Lokantasi
Mumhane Caddesi 24, Karaköy. (212) 249 1772
Istiridye is not on any tourist trail and is one of those timeless places that’s been around forever. Ordering couldn’t be easier: start with the soup of the day. Then a waiter will escort you into the kitchen to choose from the day’s fresh fish selection; this is served either grilled or fried and accompanied by salad, bread, lemon and olive oil. Simple and fabulous but, alas, only open at lunchtime.
THE BOSPHORUS, ASIAN SIDE & OTHER SUBURBS
Cevdetpaşa Caddesi 69, Bebek. (212) 263 5199
The airy terrace makes a great place to commune with Bebek’s beau monde. The mood is smart-casual and the grilled fish sandwich, served between slices of homemade cornbread (as befits owner Elif Yalın’s Black Sea roots), is famed city-wide.
Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi 21/1, Nişantaşı (212) 225 4665. www.hunkar1950.com
A venerable family-run institution (since 1950), Hünkar specialises in Ottoman-era dishes. Try one of the house specialties such as hünkar begendi (rich aubergine sauce topped with lightly spiced chunks of lamb) or ayvalı yahni (lamb stewed with quince). There’s an extensive list of Turkish wines and excellent traditional desserts.
Çiya Sofrasi & Kebap
Guneşlibahçe Sokak 32a, Kadiköy. (212) 418 5115. www.ciya.com.tr
Çiya’s chef and owner, Musa Dagdeviren, travels to obscure Anatolian villages documenting traditional dishes and as such, he’s a well-resected food anthropologist. He cooks delicious regional peasant food; things you’re unlikely to taste elsewhere. There’s always something new in the huge selection of hot dishes (served bain-marie style), freshly cooked kebabs and mezes. The commuter ferry to Kadiköy is an added bonus.
Atlı Köşk, Sakıp Sabancı Caddesi 22, Emirgan. (212) 323 0901. www.changa-istanbul.com
With its sleek interior and commodious terrace, this is a great place to escape the tourist hordes. Located in the gardens of the Sakıp Sabancı museum, a fair way up the Bosphorus, Müzedechanga’s fusion menu is presided over by the London based Kiwi chef Peter Gordon. Try clove scented meatballs with eggplant, the walnut and goat cheese salad, or grilled squid with a refined and piquant tarator-style sauce.
Akkavak Sokaği 30, Nişantaşı. (212) 219 3114. www.kantin.biz
The lunching ladies of Nişantaşı treat Kantin as their local canteen. Chef-owner Şemsa Denizsel is at the vanguard of the New Turkish food movement and is a Slow Food fanatic; they call her the “Alice Waters” of Istanbul. The menu, based on the best seasonal produce, changes regularly.