Istanbul’s restaurant scene abides to a simple formula. Those who do their work genuinely, properly and with love, survive. The others open their doors just to close them again soon after, sometimes changing their names only to inevitably disappear. Venues that have a loyal clientele are those that are consistent, a true comfort during a time when the country has been facing nothing but ups and downs.
These are the restaurants where you will find traditional dishes, the kind that Turkish mothers and grandmothers make, which children reminisce about when they leave the nest. Restaurants that are run by young chefs who are actively and creatively experimenting with Anatolian cuisine, redefining it, modernizing its aesthetic. Restaurants with wine lists that span the country where ancient vines are being resurrected, grape varieties old and new finally receiving the international attention they deserve. Restaurants that are breaking stereotypes and celebrating Turkish cuisine as an amalgamation of tradition, international influences, ancient cultures and the diversity of its regions and peoples.
Chef Maksut Aşkar has become a household name when it comes to Turkish haute cuisine. Inside the marble beauty that is SALT Galata (formerly the Ottoman Bank built in 1892 by Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury), his restaurant Neolokal is a humble ode to the roots, traditions and lost cultures of Anatolia. The wine list is also one of the most comprehensive inventories of boutique viniculture in Turkey.
The neighborhood of Bomonti is currently very cool and there really was no better place for chef Fatih Tutak to open his minimalist tasting menu restaurant. After having worked for Rene Redzep at Noma and Seiji Yamamoto at Nihonryori Ryugin in Tokyo (to name a few), Tutak returned to Istanbul to open TURK, a palatal exploration of Turkish food culture, from the Balkans, Mediterranean and Anatolian regions, all the way to Central Asia.
The yörük (Turkish nomads in Anatolia) food culture is the main inspiration behind Alaf Kurucesme, which also has a sister venue called Alaf2Tek where Turkish street food and rakı are served just like the good old days. In the kitchen is Deniz Temel, who created the renowned Alancha restaurant in Alaçatı with chef Kemal Demirasal in 2013.
A pioneer in Istanbul’s restaurant scene, chef Civan Er took the esnaf (a traditional eatery where tradesmen go for lunch) and made it chic with Yeni Lokanta (as well as Yeni Soho in London). Popular during the day as a lunch spot for people who work in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, the restaurant becomes stylish at night with aperitif cocktails at the bar followed by dishes meant to be shared and enjoyed with Turkish wines.
Having both acquired their expertise at Michelin-starred restaurants in France, Kaan Sakarya and Derin Arıbaş left the fine dining world and teamed up for Basta! a gourmet Turkish street food bar in the Moda neighborhood. Inspired by their success and yearning to create more, the duo opened a casual bistro where Turkish dishes have a clear international influence and pair nicely with wine.
A joint project between chef Maksut Aşkar and renowned sommelier Levon Bağış, Foxy is a wine bar passionate about Turkish wine producers and promoting the fruits of their labor. Glasses of wine are accompanied by unique Turkish side-dishes, some of which were created by fellow chefs such as İnanç Çelengil from Amanda Bravo, Şemsa Denizsel from Kantin and Burçak Kazdal from Apartıman.
On a cobblestoned street behind the historic Galatasaray High School in a neoclassical building that has housed the Cezayir event spaces for years, chef Çiğdem Seferoğlu has given the structure’s beautiful back garden a new purpose. Hodan’s menu is a contemporary exploration of Turkish dishes and ingredients from its many regions and cultures.
As if having heeded the call, Lokanta 1741 opened to fill the good-restaurant-void in Sultanahmet. Befitting of its unique location on top and inside of the historic Çağaloğlu Hammam, this elegant eatery and cocktail bar serves classic Turkish and Ottoman dishes with locally sourced ingredients.
This simple restaurant has been around for years and is right by the old Kandilli ferry port. It’s a simple venue right by the Bosphorus, a place to eat grilled fish and meze, drink rakı and watch the sunset (a very Istanbul thing to do).
Kandilli, Kandilli İskele Cd. No:4, 34684 Üsküdar
A restaurant specializing in Anatolian tencere yemekleri (traditional stews), Mahir’s comfort food is reminiscent of Turkish home cooking and changes on a regular basis. The restaurant also has its own wood-fired oven where lahmacun, pide and kebab dishes are made fresh upon order.
Not many locals go to the Old City to eat out, but Hamdi is an exception as one of Istanbul’s prime places to eat kebab in all its forms with a view of the Golden Horn and beyond from its terrace. One of its rivals is Beyti, another kebab haven a bit outside the city center in Florya, inside a Brutalist structure from the 1970s designed by the Turkish modernist architect Yılmaz Sanlı.
Balat Sahil Restaurant
The meyhane (tavern) experience is an essential part of Istanbul’s food culture and locals meet up frequently to drink rakı, eat meze and share their plights and joys. This little tavern, with its classic dishes and walls covered in framed black-and-white photos, is like a nostalgic trip back into the past.