Food as Vibrant and Dynamic as the City Itself
When I think of Istanbul, I think of a vibrant and dynamic city. And the food is an exact reflection of that. It carries the energy of the city inside it, from the street vendors to the service in restaurants. I see the best places in Istanbul as being easygoing, yet serious about quality, and having great attention to detail. That is the essence of the places I like to go to. You can see it in traditional spots equally as much as in chef-centric restaurants.
What Many Don’t Know About Turkish Food
From the outside, what we eat may seem all about kebabs and döner, and unfortunately gimmicks like Salt Bae don’t help erase these kinds of misconceptions, but Turkish cuisine is also very rich in vegetables and pulses. Almost everything we make at home contains plants in one way or another. And restaurants have generally been keen on seasonal produce especially in recent years. It’s standard for me to go to say, Karaköy Lokantası and order a vegetable stew, which changes according to the season. If someone were to visit Istanbul right now, they’d find okra, tomatoes, eggplants and figs everywhere. Soon we’ll have fresh walnuts and pomegranates. You’ll start spotting them in the kitchens of homes, but also of restaurants. Lokanta Kru, is a modern, chef-driven kind of a place with tasty classics and some new takes as well. Again the menu changes daily and you make your pick from the counter or the menu on the blackboard. I’m happy to go for whatever is in season, and always the hand-cut fries.
A Crash Course on Turkish Grilling Culture
Köfteci Ali Baba, in Arnavutköy, is a small curb-side shop for köfte (meatballs) and piyaz. Ocakbaşı are grill houses that specialise in kebabs. I love to sit at the grill and watch the Usta (master) craft his way through the staples. These places also offer lots of meze, mostly made of vegetables. Döner is a favourite street food but also a prized restaurant staple. Bayramoğlu Döner is the best döner place in town in my opinion. It may be out of the way if you’re here for just a few days but it’s justifiable for a perfect döner. Karadeniz Döner is another beloved döner stall in Istanbul. Go early and get the döner before Asım Usta runs out. Zübeyir Ocakbaşı is this fantastic ocakbaşı near the pedestrian-only Istiklal Street in Beyoğlu. The long hearth with a copper hood and skewers of meat grilling over the charcoal is a show-stopper. The gavurdağ salatası with finely diced onions and tomatoes is a must during summer months, when local tomatoes are at their best. Of the standard grill offerings, the Sebzeli kebab (lamb kebab and red and green capsicum), chicken wings, lamb chops and ribs are all outstanding. Make a reservation in advance to get a seat by the grill and watch Zübeyir Usta do his thing. Adana Ocakbaşı is another small, cosy ocakbaşı that’s been around since 1978. The Adana kebab is a no-brainer.
How The Workers Lunch
Esnaf lokantası (worker restaurants) is a popular style of dining in Istanbul, especially for lunch. You find them in every neighbourhood and they range from super casual to borderline fancy. They usually serve pre-prepared, slow-cooked daily dishes that reflect seasonality. It’s comfort home-cooking in a restaurant setting. In Nişantaşı for example, Tatbak is the neighbourhood esnaf lokantası-slash-kebab joint. It makes a tasty lentil soup and lahmacun. It’s quick so it’s perfect for a lunch break while exploring the chic neighbourhood and dining among locals. Gönül Paksoy, who happens to be the author of some of the best Turkish cookbooks, has a textile and clothing store of her own designs around there. Nato Lokantası is a long-standing esnaf lokantası with great comfort food from soups to stews. And then there is Hünkar which is perfect for both lunch and an intimate dinner. Its paça çorbası, a trotter soup, is the “it” thing. Pandeli is a historic lunch spot at the entrance of the spice market in Eminönü. The space is beautiful, with the most enviable blue tiles. When it’s anchovy season, I order the hamsili pilav, rice with Black Sea anchovies. If you’ve made it there, it’s worth checking out Ucuzcular Baharat for a great selection of quality spices, and Soy for bespoke, hand-beaten copper cookware and a cezve, the traditional Turkish coffee pot.
“I Think of Istanbul in Neighbourhoods”
The first question I ask when someone is visiting is, “where are you staying?” This is not Copenhagen where you want to have coffee in one neighbourhood and then hop on to another for lunch: you’ll be miserable. It’s tough to get around Istanbul. There are millions of people and the traffic can be horrendous. So it’s more efficient to plan routes within the city and to make your way day by day. You’ve got the neighbourhoods that have always been “happening” and you’ve got the newer hip ones. For example, the neighbourhood I would write about as the most exciting part for locals right now is Çiftehavuzlar on the Asian side. It’s right where I grew up so I’m really happy to see how exciting it’s becoming. A branch of Kronotrop, a specialty coffee shop in Cihangir, opened there. The franchise was opened by an elementary school friend of mine, so that’s how local it feels to me. The long-anticipated Basta Neo-Bistro opened there too. It’s by the guys behind Basta Street Food Bar, a tiny shop in Kadıköy I make a point to go to when I’m in the neighbourhood. Kaan Sakarya and Derin Arıbaş are super nice guys who come from a Michelin-star background in France. They apply their skills to make delicious street food like dürüm flatbread wraps and lamb burgers. Their rice pudding with caramel and hazelnut crunch is excellent. While on the Asian side, don’t miss Çiya, the lunch spot by Musa Dağdeviren which was featured on Chef’s Table. There’s also Yanyalı Fehmi, a family-run esnaf lokantası that’s been there for decades. You could spend a whole day in Kadıköy alone.
The Neighbourhood Essential Every Area Needs
A fırın is a traditional, wood-oven bakery specialising in simit (bread rings) and poğaça (cheese buns). My favourite is Peleki in Nişantaşı. It has these amazing, cushion-like olive pastries called açma. They’re basically these pillowy-soft buns with black olive paste, a bit oily and really beautiful; I love them. Galata Simitçisi is an old fırın in Karaköy, filled with sweet and savoury baked goods. Order a Turkish tea and a side of simit or açma and you’re set.
An Intrinsic Part of Istanbul Life
You haven’t grasped Istanbul if you haven’t been to a meyhane (tavern). It is an intrinsic part of Istanbul life, representing the conviviality and energy of the city. Meyhane is more than a restaurant, it is a whole experience that involves sharing: not just the small plates on the table or the anise-based spirit rakı, but also long conversations with friends. Regulars have their special tables and strangers become friends by the end of the meal. To enjoy a meyhane, you must take your time with each dish, slowly sipping on your glass of rakı and savouring the company around you: which is also why it’s perfect for dinner. There are many great meyhanes scattered around the city. Asmalı Cavit is family-run and is my home away from home. Some of its must-try dishes include the buttery purée of dried fava beans with caramelised onions, the muska böreği which are small, triangular phyllo pastries stuffed with ground beef, and the yaprak ciğer, thin slices of lamb liver fried with onions. The chefs grill their fish perfectly and make delicious small köfte with tomato sauce. Balat Sahil Restoran is another meyhane that’s been around since 1989. It’s a great place for meze, fish and rakı. You should try the olive oil braised mushrooms there. Around the same area is a meyhane called Cibalikapı Balıkçısı. There, I love the dried tomato dolma with sea bass.
The Chef-Led Restaurant along the Bosphorus
Apartıman Yeniköy is the kind of place that builds its menu on what its farmers and producers got their hands on. The kitchen is run by Burçak Kazdal. The last time I went I had the pickled lionfish, an invasive fish endangering other sea creatures in Turkey that’s difficult to cook – it was very good. But I usually have the meatballs with hellim. Alaf is one of my favourite restaurants along the Bosphorus, in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Kuruçeşme. Chef Murat Deniz Temel is inspired by regional Anatolian dishes to create an easy, dynamic and vibrant dining experience. The place has a cosy terrace for warmer months. I recommend the snap peas with lor (Turkish cottage cheese) and pistachios when in season. You can spend a whole day exploring the neighbourhood along the Bosphorus. You can take your coffee break inside a pasaj in Bebek at a very local spot called Cup of Joy. Nearby is Envai, a small shop that sells local handmade porcelain, glassware and books. And Mua is where I would have ice cream. The pistachio is my favourite.
I find eating at restaurants that feature modern dishes built around local ingredients and techniques inspiring. Not just fine diners, but also the more relaxed restaurants serving well-executed contemporary dishes. A long-time favourite of mine is Yeni Lokanta. Chef Civan Er takes on traditional dishes giving them a contemporary spin with a focus on quality ingredients, locality and seasonality. His mantı with dried aubergines and salted Antakya yoghurt is insane. Mikla has been open since 2005, which is a very rare lifeline for such a place in Istanbul. It was a pioneer in exploring local ingredients and techniques in an innovative and contemporary way. The restaurant works with hundreds of small farmers and producers all over Anatolia. Their service is amazing thanks to a long-standing team. Start with drinks at the roof bar and go for the tasting menu with the local wine pairing. Neolokal does innovative fine-dining that’s focused on local ingredients and techniques. Chef Maksut Aşkar’s eye for aesthetics and Hatay heritage (Hatay is a Turkish province near the Syrian border) come to life in a beautiful space in the old Ottoman central bank building. I recommend the tasting menu for a well-rounded experience. Another great tasting menu in the same category of restaurants is that of TURK by Chef Fatih Tutak, who was formerly at The House on Sathorn in Bangkok until he moved here a few years ago.
Where To Drink Wine and Cocktails is Istanbul
Bars took a big hit in the pandemic, but I’m excited to try Fahri Konsolos, a new cocktail bar in Kadıköy owned by Emir Ali Enç, the founder of Soy. Maksut Aşkar, the chef at Neolokal, also co-owns a wine bar called Foxy. It’s perfect for natural wines and indigenous grape varieties, with a side of fried cauliflower and pomegranate molasses. You can’t mention cocktails in Istanbul without mentioning Lucca: they’ve been big players for years.
In the Land of Khans and Pazars
Pazars are open air markets of fresh produce set up in different neighbourhoods of Istanbul. Feriköy Organic market is where I do my shopping every Saturday. I cook with loads of fresh, seasonal produce and I find what I’m looking for there. I start my day with gözleme for breakfast: stuffed flatbreads from the family-run stall right at the entrance. Another place I love to shop is the Kadıköy Çarşı market strip. I stop by Özcan turşu for pickles; Gözde şarküteri for olives; and Ulaş Baharat for spices, dried herbs and tomato and pepper pastes.
A Pickle Juice for the Road
Speaking of pickles, Asri Turşucu is another classic pickle shop. I especially like the okra and green plum pickles. Have a glass of pickle brine as you make your way to Cihangir’deki Dükkan to shop from a beautiful selection of handmade tableware. There’s a liquor store around called La Cave with a great selection of local wines.
Pudding with Shredded Chicken (You Heard Me)
The historic Meşhur Bebek Badem Ezmecisi has been around since 1904 and specialises in hand-crafted almond and pistachio marzipan.
Where to Eat the Best Fish
Kıyı is where I always go for fish – everything is good there. Make sure to order the tarama, the barbunya pilaki (borlotti beans cooked with vegetables) and the only meat dish on the menu, the grilled liver. Reşat is a seafood shop in the Beyoğlu fish market. Its lakerda (cured bonito) is the best in town.
People do dates differently: some prefer a bustling atmosphere with a view, others want a quieter, more intimate setting. There’s the perfect fit for everyone in Istanbul. For the former, Mürver is as larger-than-life as it gets. It’s got a beautiful open kitchen with live fire out of which dishes roll out – like monkfish with vegetables and pickled okra. I love the baked rice pudding sütlaç with burnt sütlaç ice cream, black mulberry and thyme crumbs. If you’re there early, kill time at Maezae which has a great selection of designer homeware. Contrastingly, Aheste has snugness written all over it. Everything can be shared – but order the dudi (Persian rice)all for yourself or you’ll regret it.
Off The Beaten Tourist Track
It may be out of the way, but Seraf is worth making the trek for. Chef Sinem Özler specialises in traditional food from the different regions of Turkey. The Adana-style boiled içli köfte is – I have to admit – better than my grandmother’s. Balıkçı Yılmaz in Kavak, which is almost a day’s trip away, is a great fish restaurant favoured by locals. It’s a good stop after a boat ride up the Bosphorus. We’re seeing more sourdough bakeries in Istanbul. One of them is Mitte Brot by the Petra Roasting Co., a great coffee chain here in Istanbul. Its flagship store in Gayrettepe is super cool: not just for coffee but, more recently, excellent bread too.
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