Taking a trip means first of all having the desire to discover, to know and to enter into a culture that is often different from ours. To us, eating and cooking are considered as a fundamental expression of the culture of a place.
Özge and I are pretty fanatical in this sense. We make endless discussions on the recipes, their origin, the differences and similarities between the Turkish and Italian cuisine, restaurants and tours for the program Vedat Milor (that reviews the best Turkish restaurants) In short, for us…the kitchen is essential.
Let’s start by saying that unfortunately a “standard” tour of Istanbul wife is not compatible with a gastronomic tour. The best places to eat are far away from tourist places, and you have to go there on purpose. Istanbul is a a city of 14 million people, so it is not exactly easy. Usually the time that you have available is limited, as well. With all the time that I’ve lived here, and with the good fortune to live together with people of Istanbul, I still don’t have a complete idea when it comes to all the great food experiences in the city. So, one could imagine that in 4-5 days the chance to get the wrong idea is quite high, especially without advice on places to avoid.
Also, giving general advice is not simple, because it depends on the type of cooking that you research. If one wants to, one can make a very real journey in traditional cuisine, experience the wide variety and culture of street food, and eat in a divine way with 8-10 euro. There is also the restaurant from 50€ of Ottoman cuisine, of excellent quality which is of course recommended, but again, it depends on what you are searching for. In the middle, however, unfortunately there are many restaurants, especially in Sultanahmet, where it is easy to spend 25-30 euro on terrible food.
In the following tips so you will find both cheap restaurants that guarantee uniqueness and quality at a low price, and what are widely considered the best restaurants at a higher price. For the moment, it is a short, annotated list of where to eat in Istanbul. However, we want you to know that in the near future we will be adding many other restaurants. We will also include detailed reviews for each of them, with photos taken by us, comments by others, menus and prices. We will include links to many restaurants, to find the address you need to click on “ILETISIM” within the various sites.
Our first recommendation is Konyali Lokantası, the first ” inn ” in the sense of historic Istanbul (Sirkeci one…not to be confused with the place of Topkapı). It is tradition in this case that acts as a guarantor. The menu follows the concept of the traditional turkish meal, which begins with a soup (the most famous is that of red lentils ), continue with pilaf rice, meat and vegetables. Cold dishes of vegetables will be served as side dishes. Konyali Lokantası a good option to give a first first impression of the variety used in Turkish cuisine.
The best way to tell if a restaurant is good is to see if the majority of customers are Turkish. If you are located in Sultanahmet, then definitely go to eat at Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi. In the menu there is little to choose from, even the dish here is only one: Köfte. Grilled beef meatballs are one of the most typical dishes of Turkish cuisine, and are especially delicious in this historic restaraunt (opened in 1920). Accompany with pilav and piyaz and finish with an “irmik helvası” . Given the very affordable price and the quality of the meatballs, you will certainly take into consideration the idea of an encore visit.
In the so-called “Sultanahmet area” there are not many reliable alternatives, the thing to avoid is to stop at a restaurant by chance. Given the huge influx of tourists, the quality has suffered a collapse and prices have soared. Better to get away a bit and find cheaper alternatives.
For example, in the Hocapaşa area, just attached to the mosque there is a square where there are several restaurants at really reasonable price and good quality. Among these, we recommend the Balkan Lokantası. The lokante are similar to Italian trattorias, meaning they are used mostly by workers on lunch breaks and therefore have very low prices (with 15 Lira we both leave full). For this reason they are a good example of local cuisine. The characteristic feature of all is that they work lokante style self service, the food is ready, kept warm and you choose the prefer. The Balkan is a chain of lokante good quality and we would like to recommend it. We have had lunch there several times. Another tip within the same area is the Hocapaşa Pidecisi. Here, with 8 Lira, one can eat a ‘pide’, a kind of a calzone is not completely closed, (seasoned with a choice of cheese, meat, sucuk, egg, etc.). It is delicious and a must try. Also try Lahmacun, the so-called Turkish pizza, very similar to the Roman pizza (thin crust). It consists of lamb mince, tomato, onion and garlic.
The discourse on the low quality of the restaurants in town deserves to be deepened…partly because the thing in recent times has become so obvious that reaction is inevitable. You begin to understand that when they provide a negative image of their own kitchen, they in turn provide a negative image of their own culture, and just for the sake of profit. It is not the right way. Fortunately, a few months ago Nar Lokantası opened its doors, a food culture initiative that shares our convictions about quality.
The restaurant is located right in Nuruosmaniye area, within walking distance of Sultanahmet, and was founded with the specific desire to provide the most complete picture possible of Turkish cuisine. The presentation is based on quality, obviously starting from the products (all local and from certified producers) up to the respect for tradition. The fact that owners have set out on a mission to impart an authentic Turkish food education is the best guarantee. The room is very large, well-kept, the menu is very clear, and the service is pleasant. And it is possible to make a full meal from appetizer to dessert, but you can also order a single dish, so prices can vary from 20 to 100 Lira.
Because of the high tax on alcohol in Turkey, many restaurants in Istanbul do not serve alcohol. Another great feature of Nar Lokantası is the wine list…well-stocked and exclusively composed of Turkish wines. The price of a bottle varies from 50 to 130 Lira. Know that at any restaurant in Istanbul, you will never pay less than 50 lira for a bottle of wine. For this reason, make sure the price will not be a surprise at the end and evaluate if it is more cost appropriate for you to prefer a beer.
Another quality restaurant is in Karakol, just inside the gardens of Topkapı Sarayı near Aya Irini. It opened a couple of years after an amazing restoration of historical buildings within the Imperial complex. Here we are faced with a classic representation of Ottoman cuisine that has received very positive reviews by respected gourmet. In my opinion, you are sure to enjoy any choice, but in the case of Ottoman cuisine, I would say let the fish stand aside and focus on the meat and eggplant dishes. The atmosphere is magical…eating in the garden of the Sultans. Without alcohol, you will pay about €30 for a full dinner, and it is definitely worth it.
To the south of Sultanahmet, in the neighborhood Cankurtaran, you can almost magically find a great seafood restaurant. It is Balikçi Sabahattin, a popular restaurant frequented by the Turks when they visit the tourist area. Meze executed perfectly and fresh fish. Fairly high prices as usual with fish.
Beginning to move away from Sultanahmet, we arrive at Eminönü. Right on the large Yeni Camii Square, next to the Spice Bazaar, with a superb view of the Galata Bridge, we find the Hamdi Restorant. Thanks to its strategic location is very frequented by tourists, but the quality of Meze, of Kebap and especially of sweets is more than fair. The price is about 40 Lira, so if you can find the place on the top floor roof terrace, we would like to recommend it.
As mentioned, however, to eat really well you have to move through Istanbul, so on we go to Fatih. The neighborhood is located west of the historic center, Aksaray Tram Stop, and is considered the city’s most “conservative” area of Istanbul. When I find myself in Fatih with Özge, and maybe hug or kiss her…she half-jokingly yells at me ” What are you doing! Look we are in Fatih! “. This is not to say that it is dangerous (not at all!) but only that here the presence of tourists is unfortunately close to zero. In reality there is plenty to see and it is a very underrated by tourists. Mostly immigrants from the Far East Anatolian regions live in Fatih, so people pay much more attention to religious dictates. The traditional culture also enhances their amazing regional culinary traditions, and it is precisely for this reason that the district is now accepted as gastronomic center of the city. If an inhabitant of Istanbul wants to be a culinary type on a Kebab-binge, they go to Fatih.
Just below the Aqueduct of Valens is Sur Ocakbaşı. Just glance at the photos of the menu within for a foretaste of the delicacy of the meat. Order a table of Özel Sur Kebabı, the house specialty, a mixture of various types of meat cooked in a different way and accompanied by small and tasty lahmacun. They do not serve alcohol of course, so drink strictly Ayran (here really yummy) or for the more adventurous, Şalgam. For something sweet, we absolutely recommend the Sur Tatlısı: irmik and melted cheese on the outside with cold heart of ice…amazing. Price is around 25 Lira, but while you’re there, go ahead and spend 30 and indulge your curiosity!
Horhor Caddesi is considered ‘the way of kebap’, and a festival is organized in its honor every year here. There are plenty of restaurants to recommend; among these, Hacı Usta and Şanlı Mangal…each one has its own specialties by region of origin, and ultra affordable price in relation to the quantity of food is great.
We are moving to leave Fatih not before recommending another gem of restaurant: Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası. The region of Hatay is the most southern in Turkey and on the border with Syria. Hence, it is evident that it’s cuisine is greatly influenced by Arab culture. Right from the initial meze, with hummus and mütebbel you realize the differences. But the specialty of the house are made from tuzda tavuk and tuzda kuzu: chicken or lamb cooked for more than 2 hours in a wood oven inside a sphere of salt, which then, before your eyes, will cause fire and be blow up to bring out the meat. Alternatively, there is the excellent kebab, cooked with tomatoes, carrots and peppers in an earthenware jar sealed and placed directly on the grill. It is the perfect occasion to use the word “succulent”. If you want to taste these specialties, you have to have the foresight to book three hours in advance, which is the time required for cooking them.
Let us finally reach Galata Bridge. At this point we must warn you of barges that carry the sandwiches with fish and the colorful restaurants that are located under the bridge, both for reasons of poor quality and to avoid any disappointments. We stopped instead in Karaköy, a famous zone for the quality of fish. Tarihi Karaköy Balıkçısı is a must. To understand why, just translate: ‘Historical Karaköy Fish Tavern’. A spartan local, probably changed very little since it was born in 1923, remains one of the best fish restaurants throughout Istanbul, certainly the most convenient. We recommend the fish soup which is really a specialty, grilled or levrek. But let us also advise you to feel confident in your choice, as they serve only the freshest fish. In fact, for this reason, the restaurant opens around noon and closes at 4 pm. Attention to two things: it is closed on Sundays and in the area there are many local imitations with the same name, so look for it well. In the evening, the restaurant changes its name and service style. It’s called ‘Grifin’ and the price for a meal is much higher. In general, Karaköy is rich in fish and chips shops that guarantee a high level of quality.
We arrive in Beyoğlu, the heart of modern Istanbul, a neighborhood that oozes life from every pore. Here, there are hundreds of restaurants. For Taksim and Istiklal, we will perhaps have to engage in a broader and more serious discourse, and then we will proceed. We read sometimes that this area is considered too modern and Western and “touristy”. It is not so at all. Beyoğlu district is very complex and can not be generalized just because one sees shops that carry international brands. If you have the desire to enter without fear of getting lost in the narrow streets that intersect Istiklal, you will understand everything. It is a varied and diverse neighborhood. There is everything and the opposite of everything. I do not know what is meant by “spirit” of a city, but maybe someone had a false understanding of Istanbul, because the spirit of Istanbul is this. Without Beyoğlu, Istanbul would not exist. The flood of people that you see in Istiklal at all hours is not composed of a majority of tourists, but busy residents vital to keeping the heart of the city beating.
Beyoğlu is the neighborhood that since the nineteenth century was the center of ” immigration ” in Europe. It has hosted many Christian communities of the city; Greek, Armenian, French, English, and Italian. It is here that the culture of Meyhane has been preserved best. Definately visit Nevizade or Asmalı Mescit. Both provide open air dining with a bubbly and jovial atmosphere that reigns in the heart of modern Istanbul’s nightlife.
The tradition of Meze-Raki-Balık includes a series of cold appetizers (cheese, melon, roasted eggplant, mashed peppers with walnuts), hot appetizers (calamari, octopus, shrimp), a range of grilled fish (sea bass, red mullet, or bream), accompanied by rakı, the local traditional anise liqueur. Among the many restaurants in the area we will name a few: Asmalı Cavit, Refik, Sofyali 9, Krependeki Imroz, Cumhuriyet Meyhanesi.
Another interesting area is that of Kurabiye Sokak, parallel to Istiklal near Taksim. Here, for meat lovers, there are two excellent restaurants: Zübeyir Ocakbaşı and Kenan Usta. They both have kebap of excellent quality. Their prices are obviously higher than those of Fatih, but it is normal considering the centrality of the area.
It is our philosophy that one should delve into the labyrinth of the lesser-known culinary culture. For this reason, you should definately make a trip to the picturesque Balik Pazarı and stop by Mercan Kokoreç. The kokoreç is a very traditional dish of delicious meat made from lamb intestines that have been finely chopped and worked together with tomatoes, lemon, oregano and pepper. They are then cooked on huge, horizontal skewers. It’s very common to find it paired with seafood restaurants. In fact, a typical pairing consists of kokoreç and mussels accompanied by rakı. Order a Yarim ekmek (sandwich) stuffed with kokoreç and continue with midye tava (fried mussels in batter) and midye dolma (mussels stuffed with rice). This recommendation is for those who like strong and authentic flavors.
One cannot leave Beyoğlu without going into a pastry shop! If you have a sweet tooth, have tea from Saray Muhallebicisi. We recommend Kazandibi, Lokma, Baklava and especially Kaymaklı Ekmek Kadayıfı, the latter is a must.
Moving from Beyoğlu to Beşiktaş we must pause for a pertinent discussion on Turkish street food. Obviously, it is impossible to leave without tasting Istanbul Simit and Börek, and therefore equally impossible to resist the lure the Döner kiosks. We wish to impart some advice about Döner Ekmek in particular (the sandwich mistakenly known as Kebap). Going to Istanbul without eating one would be like going to Italy without eating the pizza. Of course there are kiosks by the thousands, but there is an easy way to discover the really great ones: If you pass a döner kiosk at 7pm and you see that it is closed, then come back the next day at lunch time to be on the safe side. The reason is simple. Only one per day is prepared on the spit (rotisserie) and is set to cook early in the morning, so it is preferable to enjoy Döner before it gets to old. Now, in Çarşı in Beşiktaş, there is Karadeniz Pide Doner Salonu. They are local, very good, and very famous throughout Istanbul. They usually close around 6 pm daily. Their prices are slightly higher when compared to others in the district, but considering their quality, it is quite understandable.
The center of Beşiktaş is really a fabulous place, about 200 meters ahead of the Karadeniz, a few steps from the fish market, there is also a kiosk Balikçi. They have a Balık Ekmek (sandwich with fish). Comparing their sandwiches to what is sold on the boats in Eminönü is like comparing gold to bronze. You can choose between various types of fish (including levrek, uskumru, and hamsi). We passionately recommend Mezgit and a sandwich with fresh vegetables. It is stunning, and you will love it even if you do not like fish! Trust me!
Continuing our journey up to the beautiful and romantic Ortaköy, we come across other typical stalls just behind the mosque, where you can try Gözleme and Kumpir. We will not dwell on explanations, but they are two items that should not be missed, for sure.
Before reaching the end of our culinary tour of Istanbul, we must lastly visit the Asian side. When visiting Üsküdar, you can dine at Kanaat Lokantası, a local historical eatery that retains the price and style of a true lokanta. In reality, it is a quality restaurant, and locals go there specifically to dine and not just because they are passing by. From Üsküdar you have two options, head north and into the magical atmosphere of Kuzguncuk, or to the south in the vast and vital Kadıköy.
Kuzguncuk is full of small cafes and restaurants on the Bosphorus, perfect to spend a romantic evening. Among the many we can recommend Ismet Baba, of course a seafood restaurant…one of the most famous and authentic Istanbul. At sunset Kuzguncuk gives the best of itself, with the sun hiding behind the historical peninsula, it draws the silhouette of Istanbul. You must accompany your dinner with raki, admiring the show that the Bosphorus offers.
Our trip ends in Kadıköy, a district both immense and beautiful, the Asian counterpart of Beyoğlu, fast-paced and lively but at the same time ” alternative”. It is the cultural center of the city, with theaters, cinemas, art galleries, and is loved by young people for the presence of local live music. In fact it is perhaps the most “European” city of Istanbul and in the culinary field one breathes this atmosphere of modernity and experimentation. The last restaurant we want to advise you on is Çiya Sofrası considered (probably rightly) the best restaurant in Istanbul, due to its great variety of dishes, their freshness, and their ability to revisit traditional Anatolian recipes with a modern twist. Kadıköy district is gorgeous and well worth a visit on it’s own merit, but it is no exaggeration to say that any lover of good food should go there on purpose just to eat Çiya Sofrası. Highly recommended.
And for now, that’s all. If you walk into one of the restaurants recommended by us, please leave us your impressions. If you need to make reservations for any restaurant, don’t hesitate to strong>contact us for our assistance (some restaurants such as Karakol requires a reservation). We will gladly accommodate your opinions if you have further experiences with some other restaurants, as well.