ISTANBUL, Turkey — How much do I love eating in Istanbul? Let me count the ways (and know that the addresses listed below barely skim the possibilities). For the food lover, the city that bridges Europe and Asia, for centuries the ruling city of a great empire, is an irresistible draw. Istanbul is stuffed to bursting with great food at every level, from street carts to posh rooftop restaurants.
You can get fresh-squeezed orange juice on every corner or buy sesame-dusted simit (doughnut-shaped breads) for breakfast from a red and gold street cart. Small mom-and-pop shops specialize in clotted buffalo milk to eat with bread and honey or subtly spiced kofte (meatballs). Young and old line up for doner kebab, reserve a table in a popular lokanta (tavern) or grab a grill-side seat and watch a master perform with skewers of sweetbreads or lamb.
On a recent trip, I opted out of touristy or trendy spots and explored beloved neighborhood restaurants and specialty food shops.
I can’t wait to go back. Here are 10 of the highlights from an April visit.
(Since the end of May, Turkey has been in the news for anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul and other cities. Now, demonstrations are sporadic and, in Istanbul, mostly centered on Taksim Square. There and elsewhere in the city life goes on as usual. Restaurants are open and serve both residents and tourists. The State Department’s worldwide travel alert issued Friday mentions security issues in the Middle East but does not specifically mention Turkey.)
Semsa Denizsel’s farm-to-table restaurant in the posh Nisantasi neighborhood is hands-down my favorite. Her chalkboard lists 14 dishes each day, and you’ll want all of them. I could have eaten here every day for the week: I’m still craving globe artichokes from Izmir that were braised in olive oil with rice; her thin, crisp flatbreads topped with greens; soulful soups; thin slices of beef tongue with sultanas, her beautiful desserts — and the crusty loaves she bakes from an Anatolian heirloom wheat that dates back 8,000 years. Downstairs is her takeout boutique. No surprise that she’s known as the Alice Waters of Istanbul.
Kantin, 30 Akkavak Sokagi, Nisantasi; 011-90-212-219-3114. Lunch and early dinner. No alcohol. A meal for two about $75.
On a street off Iskeli Caddesi (the European side’s main pedestrian shopping street), lined with meyhane (taverns specializing in meze), this one stands out for the fresh, vibrant flavors of each little dish. Plan to stay awhile — that’s the point. Order a few cold dishes to start, maybe local cheese, roasted red peppers, braised artichoke or lakerda (cured bonito) and a bottle of raki (Turkey’s anise-flavored spirit). Eat a little. Drink a little. Talk a lot. Repeat, ordering warm meze until it’s closing time. Don’t miss the flash-fried, wafer-thin slices of lamb liver or the calamari. For the real scene, head upstairs, where family and friends sit at long tables covered in myriad dishes. Raki and talk flow. And from time to time, guests squeeze onto a small balcony to have a smoke.
Asmali Cavit, 16/D Asmali Mescit Caddesi, Beyoglu; 011-90-212-292-4950, no website. Be sure to reserve ahead. Meal for two, about $80.
On a Sunday, we took the Metro and then a taxi to Tarabya, an old resort and port along the Bosporus. Our destination: Kiyi, a lovely old-fashioned restaurant with classic, correct service and a well-heeled clientele. The hot and cold meze are outstanding — crimson roasted peppers, baby pickled okra, octopus salad, taramasalata (fish roe spread), fried sand smelt, grilled calamari and crisp phyllo “cigarettes” filled with cheese. Nibbling on this and that, sipping raki, we whiled away the afternoon and finished the feast with a perfectly grilled whole sea bass. Do let your waiter point out the best of the season.
Kiyi, 126 Kefelikoy Caddesi, Tarabya; 011-90-212-262-0002. Meal for two, including raki, about $90.
Chef-owner Musa Dagdeviren has done extensive research into historical and regional dishes and serves an astonishing array at his three simple restaurants in Caferaga Mahallesi surrounded by the sprawling Kadikoy market. At Ciya Sofrasi, step up to the counter and choose cold meze, as many as you like: You pay by the weight. Hummus with pickled chile peppers is terrific with flatbread from a wood-burning oven. For a non-Turkish speaker, it can be difficult to figure out what to order. Just point. I had to come back my last night for another kebab, actually two — lamb minced with tail fat and bracketed with either whole spring garlic bulbs or sweet-tart loquat to wrap up in that wonderful flatbread. For dessert? Candied pumpkin with clotted buffalo milk.
Ciya Sofrasi, 48/B Gunesli Bahce Sokak , Caferaga Mahallesi, Kadikoy; 011-90-216-330-1390. Meal for two about $30.
Istanbul food tour with Tuba Satana
Tuba Satana gave up a career as a hotel food and beverage director to follow her passion: the food scene in Istanbul, documenting the places she has loved all her life, pointing out the best shops for Turkish delight, baklava and spices, deciphering the open-air markets, collecting the stories of particular dishes and becoming a regular at old-fashioned workers restaurants. You can take advantage of her expertise by signing up for a half-day food tour organized around your interests and her latest passions. She took three of us on a tour of the Kadikoy market that began with Turkish coffee and ended with lunch at Ciya Sofrasi. Her blog Istanbul Food (in English) is an invaluable resource.
This chef-driven restaurant, in the heart of the Beyoglu district, is on the ground floor of a suite hotel but has its own entrance. Lively and hip, it’s crowded on weekends. Working in an open kitchen, chef Maksut Askar does his take on modern Turkish cuisine with global influences. His ingredients are impeccable: He’s a stickler for local resources. You can find dishes such as merguez sausage with romesco, slow-cooked octopus and sea bass ceviche, but if you have a hankering, you can also get a barbecue beef sandwich, a burger and shoestring fries, or a pizza topped with lamb and shallots.
Sekiz Istanbul, Kuloglu Mah. 1 Erol Dernek Sokak, Beyoglu, 011-90-212-249-8924; Meal for two about $100.
Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi Lokantasi
Tucked in a back alley in Karakoy, in the working-class hardware district, this tiny fish kebab restaurant is as compact as a boat. A small window into the kitchen displays the day’s kebabs on offer. Inside, grill master Muharrem Usta operates in a kitchen the size of a galley, deftly turning skewers threaded with prawns or sole over a charcoal fire. A drawer to his right holds the bread, another napkins and silverware. There is an upstairs, but you’ll want to sit at one of the two tables downstairs to better catch the action. Add a green salad and maybe the sea bass in parchment paper.
Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi Lokantasi, 30 Tersane Caddesi Kardesim Sokak, Karakoy; 011-90-212-251-1371. Lunch for two, $90
When visiting the Kadikoy market on the Asian side (a $2 ferry ride across the Marmara Sea from Karakoy), don’t miss this tiny place turning out Turkish-style pizzas called lahmacun. It’s fascinating to watch the assembly line in front of the wood-burning oven that takes up half the space. One guy rolls out the dough. Another garnishes it with spicy minced beef instead of the usual lamb. The third slips the rounds into the oven. The fourth stacks and plates them while the owner holds court in the corner. At about $2 apiece, these crisp flatbreads with the merest smear of beef are utterly addictive. Eat with a squeeze of lemon and some parsley leaves. Check out the pide (boat-shaped pie) with parsley filling too.
Halil Lahmacun, 26/A Gunesli Bahce Sokak, Kadikoy; 011-90-216-337-0123; no website. Lahmacun about $2 each.
Karadeniz Pide Doner Salonu
I’d almost given up, feet tired, but was determined to find the hole-in-the-wall doner kebab spot Satana had mentioned. We had walked along the Bosporus to Besiktas, a district of Istanbul, and finally found it on a nondescript street next to a phone store. The line was a block long, but it was worth the wait for the thinly sliced lamb and beef piled into a soft bun with tomatoes and slow-cooked peppers. We stood in the middle of the street eating our sandwich, juices dripping, unable to stop ourselves from groaning. It was that good.
Karadeniz Pide Doner Salonu, 6 Mumcu Bakkai Sokak, Sinan Pasa Mahallesi, Besiktas; 011-90-212-261-7693, no website.
Uc Yildizs Sekerleme
Every time I threaded my way through the crowds on Iskeli Caddesi, I had to turn off onto a side street and buy a bag of lokum, or Turkish delight, from this shop that dates to 1926. Flavored with pistachio, hazelnuts, rose or my favorite, a hauntingly musky mastic, the lokum here is less gummy than that at other perhaps more famous sweet shops, and with a meltingly tender texture. Now that I’m home and can’t get my lokum fix, I wish I’d brought back a huge box of the traditional sweets.
Uc Yildizs Sekerleme, 15 Dudu Odalan Sokak., Beyoglu; 011-90-212-293-8170.
Kenan Usta Ocakbasi
There were no seats left around the charcoal brazier at this top grill restaurant, so we headed upstairs to the modest dining room, where every table, except the one we’d reserved, was full. I watched as two women talked and ate like crazy and couldn’t believe it when they ordered yet another round of skewers. These women could eat. We tried valiantly but didn’t come close — a few meze, rich fatty lamb sweetbreads threaded on skewers, and like all the meats here served with a pile of paper-thin flat bread, the better to collect all the juices. My favorite? The spiced beef. Like the practiced women, we liberally sprinkled our meats with smoky Turkish red pepper.
Kenan Usta Ocakbasi, 18 Kurabiye Sokak, Beyoglu; 011- 90-212-293-5611. Meal for two, about $50.