Eating out in Istanbul is a real delight, with some of the most delicious food you’ll find at this fascinating crossroads between Europe and the Middle East. Expect everything from inventive and elegant fine dining restaurants, such as Mikla, to buzzy breakfast cafes, neon-lit pide salons, and lively meyhanes.
Istanbul may not have a reputation as a great dining city in the way that Tokyo or Barcelona do, but it’s certainly a great eating city. What it lacks in the way of creativity, it makes up for in deliciousness. While the city might only boast a handful of innovative, elegant restaurants such as Mikla (a must-do!), for us the best times were to be had in the simple neighbourhood eateries of Beyoğlu. These are our favorites from our two weeks of eating out in Istanbul.
Eating Out in Istanbul
Marmara Pera Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 167/185, Beyoğlu
The last time we were in Istanbul, we were here to cover the opening of the W Hotel and Jean-George’s restaurant, Spice Market. Many of our restaurant tips came from the W’s local staff and Jean-George, who’d been eating his way around the city during his time setting up the restaurant and training staff. As you’d expect we made the rounds of the latest, hippest restaurant openings. Unfortunately many were a tad disappointing. They were either innovative but inconsistent, or they were fashionable but over-priced for the quality and style of food coming out of the kitchen. There was only one restaurant that really stood out as creative, delicious, and consistent in quality, and that was Mikla, the stylish restaurant of Turkish-Finnish Chef Mehmet Gurs. In keeping with our sustainable and local travel themes of this trip, we’d decided that we weren’t going to try any of the hottest restaurants this time, but we couldn’t resist returning to Mikla. We were pleased to see that despite even more inventive dishes, some of our favourites from a few years ago had remained on the tasting menu, albeit with slight tweaks, including the North Aegean raw grouper with lemon and kalamata olives, and the Cherry-wood smoked lamb loin with walnut pistou. It seems regular customers won’t let the chef take them off. The dishes were as elegant and as refined as the dining space. Why aren’t more restaurants like this? The rooftop views are spectacular by the way too.
VAN KAHVALTI EVI
Defterdar Yokuşu 52A, Cihangir
After Terence’s Turkish-inspired eggs on our Istanbul apartment terrace, this popular all-day breakfast café in Cihangir, Van Breakfast House, is my favourite spot for breakfast in the city. Much of the organic produce comes from Van in eastern Turkey and they do several scrumptious breakfast spreads made up mostly of produce from the region. I love their Breakfast of Van Golu which consists of a big platter of cheeses – white cheese, string cheese, village cheese, new Kashkawal cheese, and herbed cheese – along with black and green olives, tomato, cucumber, and boiled eggs, and dishes of honey comb, marmalade, and heavenly clotted cream. Terence can’t go here without ordering menemen (eggs with tomato salsa) and they do half a dozen varieties, but he’s smitten with the Sucuklu menemen with spicy Turkish sausage. Their fresh pomegranate juice is delicious too and the hipster scene also makes for some fun people watching.
Taksim Cadessi 8, Beyoğlu
I couldn’t believe our luck when I realised that this terrific pide salon was right around the corner from our Istanbul holiday rental. You can eat in or take away and I was secretly pleased that we were too exhausted from our flight to go out the first night we arrived as it was a good excuse to get some take-away Turkish ‘pizza’! I love that it’s a family-ran business and the owner, Şubemiz, who is a very sweet guy, takes his pide very seriously. The boat-shaped Kıymalı Sade with finely-ground minced meat is my favourite while Terence likes the Karışık or ‘mixed’ pide, with sausage, fried eggs, tomatoes, and peppers, which is like a cross between a pizza and a hamburger ‘with the lot’.
Bekar Sokak 28, Beyoğlu
We walked past this popular grill house on the corner of our block every day, and its three floors of dining and outdoor tables were always packed, often late into the night, with loud groups of locals tucking into plates of succulent grilled kebaps. Foodies should try to get a table around the ocakbası, the long copper-hooded hearth, where the cook grills the meats over coals. We devoured the tasty chilli dip (ezme), (smoky) roasted aubergine (patlican kozde), a colossal fresh ‘special salad’ (gavur dagı), ‘special’ lamb ribs (tarak), and a mixed kebap plate, which included tawk şiş (chicken shish), pirzola (lamb chops), and beyti kebap (skewered garlic minced kebab). It was far too much food! They serve some decent Turkish wines, however, they’re too expensive for what they are and you’re better off doing what the locals do and drinking raki.
Nevizade Sokak 24, Beyoğlu
It’s impossible to not eat on Nevizade Sokak at least once. The narrow lane is lined with busy bars and meyhanes (traditional Turkish taverns), which the wee hours. Sure, you could simply take in the scene from a pavement table at one of pubs while you sip some beers, but you’d be missing what the street is all about. This is where groups of locals go to begin their big nights out by lingering over long meals, so the people watching is fascinating. The best meyhane of the lot is Imroz – its outside tables are always crammed with locals and it’s the only one where the waiters don’t hassle passerbys when they’re slow. Imroz is actually owned by a family that came from the Aegean island of Imroz (Gökçeada in Turkish), and while the cuisines are very similar, this is about as Turkish as meyhanes come. The meal starts with mezze, which you choose from the tray the waiter brings to the table. Portions are small for the price compared to Zübeyir Ocakbaşı where they’re twice the size, but they were incredibly tasty – the hamsi tursu (pickled anchovy) and patlican soslu (aubergine and tomato salad) were sublime.
Kallavi Sokak 13/1, Beyoğlu
My heritage is Russian so I grew up on my grandmother’s varenyki and pilimeni, that is, boiled potato/cream cheese and meat dumplings, so I have a soft spot for this charming, family owned restaurant that specializes in the cuisine from the Caucasus, and ‘Circassian ravioli’ specifically. Swimming in a sea of sour cream with a drizzle of chilli oil, Ficcin’s ‘ravioli’ is more like my Babouskha’s Russian dumplings and Ukranian pierogi/Polish pyrogi than Italian ravioli. The menu, which changes daily, is long, and includes all the usual Turkish standards, but I wouldn’t come here for anything else. Other than a mixed salad, which won’t make you feel so guilty for slurping up all that sour cream. If you’re after atmosphere, head here for lunch when it can sometimes be tricky to get a table. If you want a quick meal, drop by at night, but be aware that you could occasionally be eating on your own.
Kadinlar Pazari, Fatih
We lunched here somewhat serendipitously. We were heading to see a master luthier in a neighbourhood close to Fatih (on the Sultanahmet side of water) to buy Terence a baglama, so we decided to try a restaurant I’d read about on the way. Despite the great reviews, the restaurant was empty with several staff sitting around drinking coffee out front, yet, by contrast, a couple of blocks away, Siirt Şeref Büryan Kebabı Salonu was crowded with tables of local businessmen and families. The casual eatery is located near Kadinlar Pazari, a pedestrianised square known as Little Kurdistan, as residents here come from Siirt, Kurdish city and province close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders. While we know the cuisine in that far north-eastern corner of Syria, we didn’t know anything about the food from Siirt, so we did that “we’ll have what they’re having” thing and pointed to the other tables. What everybody was having were the two dishes Siirt is famous for: perde pilav and büryan kebap, which this family has famously been making for some 120 years. The büryan kebap involves lamb being cooked over a wood fire in a pit sealed by mud. You can have it on the bone (kemikli) or boneless (kemiksiz), but either way it’s served on a thick grilled piece of bread to soak up the fat. A warning: it is very fatty. We actually preferred the fez-shaped Perde Pilau, a delicious rice cooked with spices and almonds in filo pastry in a pot. It was sublime. After your meal, take a stroll around the square to check out the shops selling cheeses, honeycomb and spices from Siirt. Trust us, you’ll need the exercise!
Sofyali Sokak 9, off Asmalimescit Cadessi, Beyoğlu
Open all day, this traditional meyhane in Beyoğlu’s funky eating and drinking quarter, Asmalimescit, is a great place to stop for a bite to eat any time of the day or night. The interior is charmingly rustic, but the terrace is where it’s at on a fine day or weekend evening. The cold starters are reliable (we loved the fursu, red pepper pickle, which was fiery) and the meat dishes are delicious (the Izgara Kofte was especially tasty), but servings here are huge, so plan on having just one main meat dish between two. And a bottle of raki is a must.
Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak 2, Beyoğlu
You can’t help but notice this hip little place as you skip down the hill to Galata Bridge, not far from Galata Tower. Unless you’re super-fit you probably won’t see it as you’re hiking up because you’ll be too focused on catching your breath. If the stylish, minimalist design doesn’t grab your attention, the jazz soundtrack should. The casual seafood eatery has just half a dozen tables, a small space at the bar, a compact kitchen, and a couple of friendly owners. We have to say that the food was hit and miss. The fish soup was scrumptious, if a little salty; the friend anchovies and white beans were delicious; the seasonal salad of mixed lettuce greens, mint, parsley, dill, and basil, was one of the best green salads we’ve ever had; and the fried calamari was absolutely perfect. A plate of ‘fish meatballs’ was fine, but served with a very strange sauce. There’s no alcohol on the menu, but ask for a wine or beer and a waiter will trot off and return a few minutes later with a paper bag.
Minare Sokak, Asmalimescit
I’m not sure why, but this hip little basement eatery (with tables outside that seem to attract groups) reminds me of the casual eateries we used to frequent in Sydney many years ago. There’s a short menu, a good wine list, an open kitchen, a simple but stylish design, and casual, friendly staff dressed in black. The food is from the south-eastern Hatay region near the border with Syria, so you can expect to see Syrian staples on the menu such as mouhammara, a red pepper, walnut and pomegranate dip, though it’s nowhere near as good in Turkey as it is in Syria (not even here). We order the appetiser plate, which included an assortment of tasty dips, but we regretted not getting the minced meat wrap, which our neighbours at the next table had.