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Food & Drink

How to truly experience Istanbul's culinary scene

The visitor's guide: eating your way around Istanbul

Dishes and drinks your palate will fondly remember long after your trip's over


June, 2012

by: Gizem Ünsalan

During your stay here, you will undoubtedly become familiar with Turkey’s national drink, rakı. This anise-flavoured hard liquor is best paired with meze (small plates of starters) and fish. If you’re in the Beyoğlu area, you’ve got more options for meyhanes (Turkish taverns) than you’ll have time for. Try Çukur Meyhane for genuine flavour in a down-to-earth setting, or head a little closer to Nevizade (near the Fish Market) to visit Tarihi Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi, known best as the place where Atatürk used to drink rakı (don’t know who that is yet? It’s best you get familiar with him soon – if not, someone’s bound to fill you in at the first chance anyway). Another favourite in the area is Yakup 2, which not only offers flavourful meze but does so on a breezy terrace. A little closer to Galata, you’ll find Galata Meyhanesi, another good option for an authentic rakı-fish experience. Fancy something more upscale? Be sure to make reservations at Münferit, the city’s ‘it’ restaurant for the past couple of years (and the recipient of two awards at the 2011 Time Out İstanbul/Gusta Eating & Drinking Awards) that prides itself on offering a ‘modern meyhane’ atmosphere and creative dishes to match.


Although there are a myriad of meyhanes in Sultanahmet promising the real thing, none comes closer than Kumkapı’s Kör Agop, a family-run restaurant that specialises in Armenian and Turkish flavours and fresh fish.


Fancy having your rakı-fish dinner somewhere closer to the Bosphorus? Try Karaköy Balıkçısı, a slightly more upscale fish restaurant that’s stood the test of time. Want something a little more low-key? You can’t go wrong with Akın Balık, right next to the Galata Bridge, where the ambiance is relaxed and the cats ever-ready to cosy up to your legs.


If you’re on the Asian side, there are several classic rakı-fish eateries you just can’t pass up, like Cibalikapı Balıkçısı, located in Moda. For an unforgettable on-the-water meyhane experience, try İsmet Baba Restaurant in Kuzguncuk, noted as the last place where the poet Nazım Hikmet enjoyed a glass of rakı in Turkey. In that same neighbourhood, you’ll also find Kosinitza, a small upscale restaurant (and the recipient of the Best Neighbourhood Restaurant award at our 2011 Time Out İstanbul/ Gusta Eating & Drinking Awards) that specialises in stellar seafood. Farther north along the shore is Kandilli Suna’nın Yeri, which serves quality seafood in a relaxed atmosphere right by the pier.


Lucky enough to be in Istanbul for longer than a few days? Take a day trip to the Princes’ Islands, making sure to set a rakı table in time to catch the sunset at either Kalpazankaya Restaurant on Burgazada or Yücetepe Kır Gazinosu on Büyükada.


Another drink you’ll see Turks consume a lot of is tea – bright red tea, to be exact, served in small narrow-waisted glasses at every hour of the day, in every part of the city. To really get the full experience, we recommend visiting either one of the city’s best-viewed tea gardens – Pierre Loti Cafe in Eyüp or Çınaraltı Çay Bahçesi in Çengelköy.


We’re sure Turkish coffee is on your list, too, so make room on your Eminönü trip to stop by Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, the undisputed best brand when it comes to Turkish coffee. If you find yourself wandering around the Kadıköy neighbourhood on the Asian side, it’s only a matter of time before the strong coffee scent emanating from Fazıl Bey’in Türk Kahvesi entices you. Don’t resist its calling.


It just wouldn’t be right to visit Istanbul without trying kebap, for which the city offers more options than you could possibly count. Better to visit a real ocakbaşı restaurant, like Zübeyir Ocakbaşı in Beyoğlu, and sweat it out by the fireside as you watch a variety of skewered, sliced and minced chicken, lamb, beef and veal get spiced, cooked and tossed in countless sauces. Even vegetarians can find a kebap that suits them, thanks to places like Kadıköy’s Çiya Sofrası, which serves flavours from all over Turkey.


And what about Turko-Ottoman cuisine? Conveniently located by the Egyptian Spice Market, Pandeli is an Istanbul institution that’s been around for over a century, and it is the one restaurant you should make time for on your trip if you can’t get anywhere else.


Then there are the classic Turkish dishes that you’d be remiss not to try. For mantı (Turkish ravioli stuffed with minced meat), the definitive destination is Casita in Bebek. For kurufasulye (dried beans stewed in a tomato sauce), look no further than Hüsrev in Gayrettepe. If that proves a bit far to venture, either one of the Fasuli branches in Sirkeci or Tophane is a good place to try the dish. More central still is Ortaköy’s Bizce Kuru, which serves its beans piping hot and buttery soft.


And speaking of Ortaköy, no trip there would be complete without a taste of kumpir, or jacket potato stuffed to the brim with toppings of your choice. You can buy this treat for more or less the same price from any one of the vendors lined up in a row near the Ortaköy Mosque, then enjoy it on a bench right by the Bosphorus.


But kumpir isn’t the only must-try street food in Istanbul, of course. The balık-ekmek (fish sandwiches) sold at the Eminönü docks are a cheap and tasty option, as is the ubiquitous simit (the Turkish version of sesame bagels, baked with a coating of molasses for extra flavour). Another popular street food you’ll see around town is midye dolma (stuffed mussels on the half shell), though we have to warn you to try them at your own risk – those of you who are overly cautious or faint of the stomach are better off ordering them at a proper restaurant.


A relatively simple dish introduced to the world by Turks, yogurt is best tried in Kanlıca on the Anatolian shore, where it is served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar for a light, summery treat.


And speaking of sweet treats, you’ll probably have heard by now that Istanbul is a mecca of sorts for those who have a sweet tooth. Chances are the first dessert you’ll be tempted to try is the baklava, and it’s best had at Karaköy Güllüoğlu, period. Next is the elusive Turkish delight (called ‘lokum’ hereabouts), available in a myriad of colours at the historic sweets shop Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir, which has branches in Beyoğlu, Eminönü and Kadıköy. Located sinfully close by Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir in Kadıköy is yet another historic sweets shop, Şekerci Cafer Erol, which is where you’ll find the best şekerpare (small syrupy cakes), Osmanlı tulumba (fried dough served in sugary syrup) and akide candy in the city. The syrupy desserts don’t end there, either, with a visit to Künefis in Beşiktaş guaranteeing you plenty of cheesy, gooey goodness in the form of künefe (oven-baked shredded wheat doused in syrup and topped with gooey cheese). Pudding fans will love Beyoğlu’s Saray Muhallebicisi for its namesake saray muhallebisi (milk pudding topped with a thick layer of chocolate), kazandibi (milk pudding with a caramel base) or the dessert that first shocks, then makes fan of foreign visitors, tavuk göğsü (pudding made with stringy chicken breast). Another Istanbul classic is Baylan Pastanesi, Turkey’s oldest patisserie, which has been serving up a mean dessert called the Kup Griye (featuring vanilla and caramel ice cream, whipped cream, honey-almond and caramel sauce) since 1923. And who can forget Istanbul’s own profiterole master? Although there are those who claim the profiterole served today isn’t what it used to be, İnci on İstiklal Caddesi remains the city’s best spot to try the dessert. If you don’t make it to any of these destinations, however, you should at least try the thick Maraş ice cream from any of the street vendors all over İstiklal.


Lastly, there’s Istanbul’s late-night food offerings, almost as impressive as the city’s nightlife scene itself – and similarly centred around the Taksim area. Some highlights include kokoreç (seasoned, skewered lamb’s intestines), served up at Şampiyon Kokoreç and Mercan Kokoreç near Nevizade; tantuni (a wrap of diced meat, tomatoes, peppers and onions) at Emine Ana Tantuni; lahmacun (thin dough topped with minced meat, aka Turkish pizza) wherever you can find it late at night; and kaşarlı dürüm döner (wrap with thinly-sliced beef and kaşar cheese) at Bambi Cafe right on Taksim Square. For the really, truly drunk, our best recommendation could only be the ıslak burger (literally ‘wet burger’, a garlicky, soggy eat) served at Kızılkayalar next door – there’s nothing quite like it.


Feel like you have room for more? Take a look at our other food & drink guides


Best tapas dishes in town   Happy hour treats
Cooling off   The kebap connection


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