When my friend Halliday recently posed this question to me, my mind immediately froze, paralyzed by the mere thought of only having three days to eat in Istanbul.
Once I regained my composure, I began to pour over this past month’s culinary memories and highlights. Below is by no means an exhaustive list (the next month or so will be devoted to more detailed accounts of my culinary adventures in Istanbul), but this is a start, and should serve as a reliable guide to anyone who faces the difficult task of deciding where to eat during a 72 hour sojourn in this vast city.
Köşebaşı is in Levent.
Well, 4. Levent (Dört Levent, the end of the metro line) to be exact. This is among the best kebab restaurants in the city serving amazing mezes, delectable grilled vegetables (when they are in season you will get paltican izgara, grilled eggplant), premium meat, and spectacular desserts. Just tell the server how hungry you are and he will do the rest. You would be insane to forgo the künefe, shredded pastry filled with cheese, cooked in butter, and served with syrup and kaymak (clotted cream), so get it even though you won’t have room for dessert. To get there by public transport, head out of the metro in the direction of Yeni Levent (New Levent) and walk towards the towers for about 50 yards, then make a left onto Akçam Sokok and follow this s-shaped road, pass under the bridge and make a right at the light onto Çamlık Caddesi. Köşebaşı will be 50 yards up on the right. There are several other Köşebaşı restaurants throughout Istanbul and Turkey and from May-September, an outlet opens in Reina (Arnavutköy) on the Bosphorus.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi
This place is located at No. 12 Divanyolu Cad. Don’t mix it up with the other köftecisi on the street, even though they may have the same or similar name! It was here a couple of years ago that something clicked and I started to love ayran, a watered down yogurt drink served throughout Turkey and the Middle East. Now its hard for me to eat lamb without it. Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi is simple and straight forward. They do köfte (grilled lamb meatballs), fasulye (marinated beans), and irmik helvası very very well. This is a great pit stop to take on your way from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque to Şehzade Camii, Süleymaniye Camii, or the Grand Bazaar.
Sauted mendi with yogurt at Çiya
Çiya is in Kadıköy on the Asian side. You can read all about it in a previous blog post. I suggest you devote at least half a day to eating in Kadıköy. If you can, try to go on Tuesday when the huge market takes place. Otherwise, you can enjoy the regular daily bazaar selling all types of food. You can get to Kadıköy on a ferry from Beşiktaş, Eminönü, Karaköy, and Kabataş. The trip takes around 20 minutes and costs 1.40 lira. To visit the food bazaar and to get to Çiya walk out of the ferry terminal and head towards the tram tracks or the unfortunate landmark Starbucks. The bazaar isn’t touristy like the Spice and Grand Bazaars so its actually pleasant to browse. The shopkeepers are really nice and this is the perfect place to pick up some spices and dried fruit or nuts to take home with you. After Çiya, walk off your meal and dessert and get ready for more sweets. Visit Haci Bekir for kaymaklı lokum (Turkish delight filled with clotted cream. That’s right, you read it correctly. Filled with clotted cream.) and their sakızlı lokum (mastic flavored Turkish delight). Stop into Baylan for a Kup Griye (ice cream, carmel, creme chantilly, and nuts) and Beyaz Fırın for slice of their magical pastalar (cakes) and tea. Don’t rule out Cafer Erol for a bit of hard candy to go.
This is a legendary spot just next to the Spice Bazaar great for either a quick bite or a long meal. Look to the right of the bazaar and you will see Hamdi written on the front of the building. You can grab a lahmacun or döner kebab on the ground floor and eat at one of the 4 tables (fun because you can watch the lahmacun being cranked out) or head upstairs to the dining rooms overlooking the Golden Horn. I love their fıstıklı kebab (ground lamb mixed with pistachios), an unpretentious dish that in many ways embodies the flavors and simplicity of Turkish cuisine. Try to visit Hamdi in the off hours just before noon or 3-6pm to avoid the heavy smoking times.
For a fancy meal, head to Mikla on the top floors of the Marmara Pera Hotel, with innovative Finnish-Turkish cuisine skillfully prepared by the dynamic young chef Mehmet Gürs or to Borsa (there’s one in the Lütfi Kırdar convention center in Harbiye and another in İstinye Park) where Anatolian recipes are reinterpreted and served using niche local ingredients.
Sütiş serves meals all day but I like it best for breakfast when you can get eggs served as you like and bread with honey and kaymak. There is one just off Taksim at the top of İstiklal Cad.
Gümüş tava (fried sand smelt) at Kıyı
Recommended to me by both chef Mehmet Gürs and pasty chef Senem Betil, this fish restaurant in Tarabya is renowned for its mezeler. I make a meal out of them and I love their kalamar izgara (grilled calamari), gümüş tava (fried sand smelt) and midye tava (fried mussles). To get there, you can take a bus from Beşiktaş (among other places). It is a couple of miles north of the second Bosphorus bridge and traffic is heavy for the first part of the ride, so budget around 45 minutes to get there.
You are bound to encounter the many franchises in Istanbul and, unlike in other countries, chains tend to be quite good and well loved by Istanbullus: Saray (for all kinds of traditional food and desserts), Mado (for ice cream and other sweets like balkava filled with kaymak), İnci (for profiterol), Haci Bekir (for lokum), House Cafe (as a meeting point for traditional Turkish kahvalti of cheese, tomatoes, olives, and cucumbers; a salad; or a drink).