As chronicled by Istanbul Eats, the Tünel end of Istanbul’s famed İstiklal boulevard was some two years ago the site of a heated burger war. It all started when a former Turkish basketball-player-turned-restaurateur who had spent time studying in California opened up Mano Burger, a mostly successful recreation of the kind of burger joints the owner frequented in the United States.
Mano was only in business for a few months when a rival emerged a few doors down in the form of the more upscale Dükkan Burger, part of a mini-chain that was affiliated with what was at the time Istanbul’s trendiest butcher.
For a while the rivalry burned white hot, but then, suddenly, it flamed out. Mano, squeezed between a problematic landlord and Beyoğlu municipal inspectors unhappy about burger smoke wafting over Tünel Square, threw in the towel and closed down. Meanwhile, Dükkan’s business model of charging high prices while continually lowering the quality of the meat it served finally did it in. Tünel had suddenly turned from a sizzling burger battleground into a burger graveyard.
So imagine our surprise when we recently learned that not only is the Beyoğlu burger war back on, but it’s going international. Like many others, we were shocked and intrigued by a February 6 report that Shake Shack, the neo-retro burger chain started by New York restaurant guru Danny Meyer, would be opening up an Istanbul branch in – where else? – Tünel. We had barely digested this news when we noticed – only a few doors down from the future site of the new Shake Shack – a big sign on the outside of the vacant Dükkan building announcing the impending arrival of a new outpost of Fatburger, a California- based chain famed for its, well, fat burgers.
Things get more interesting still. Now occupying the space that once was home to Mano Burger is the latest outpost of Etiler Marmaris, a brash Turkish fast-food chain serving döner, tost (pressed sandwiches) and, yes, burgers, that has been expanding at such a rapid rate that we wouldn’t be surprised if its owners have international expansion plans of their own. It’s hard to imagine the ambitious folks behind Etiler Marmaris giving up too much ground to the carpetbaggers behind Shake Shack and Fatburger.
Many, of course, will celebrate the arrival of the international burger big boys in Istanbul. But this latest news put us in a bit of a wistful mood, thinking not only about what a boomtown Istanbul has become but also how much Tünel itself has changed and how much of the city’s old fabric is being lost in the process. At this point it’s almost hard to believe that up until only a few years ago the square was the quiet end of İstiklal Caddesi, like the sleepy town at the terminal end of a long railway. The spot where Fatburger is set to rise was once a bookstore. Shake Shack’s future location, in a historic corner building that most recently housed a branch of the extremely forgettable Gloria Jean’s Coffees chain, was prior to that the longtime home of the restaurant Dört Mevsim (Four Seasons), an eccentric little Beyoğlu institution.
Here’s how Hugh Pope, an author and longtime Beyoğlu resident whom we reached out to for some perspective, remembers the place:
“Four Seasons was an oasis of well-worn gentility, an esnaf restaurant for surviving Ottoman-era Levantines and pre-Boom European residents of Istanbul. It was memorable for its owner, a petite, reserved, old-fashioned British woman who had seemingly always lived in Istanbul. It had an intimate yet untouchable atmosphere, a high ceiling and an unusually European décor. The lady made an effort to do Christmas lunch specials for regulars at Christmas, but normally there was a three-course fixed menu at a very reasonable price that usually included (if memory serves) a slab of pale steak in gravy with mashed potatoes. You wouldn’t necessarily make an expedition to it but it was a wonderful Beyoğlu institution that I still miss, a kind of British cousin of the late lamented Rejans.”
Interestingly, perhaps the last surviving place with a link to the “old” Tünel is Fırat Büfe, a tiny, no-frills canteen that itself features a burger on the menu. Not any old burger, mind you, but the ıslak (or “wet) burger, an Istanbul hometown original. Istanbul Eats’ description of the budget-friendly ıslak burger remains definitive: “The burger is wet, having been doused by an oily, tomato-based sauce before incubating in a glass-lined burger hamam. There, it becomes even wetter, the once fluffy white bun rendered a greasy, finger-licking radioactive shade of orange, both chewy and slick on either side of the garlicky beef patty.”
Fırat Büfe happens to be right next door to where Fatburger will soon operating. We stopped by there the other day to take the pulse and found manager Ekrem Kar, 36, nonplussed about the culinary developments in Tünel and how they may affect Fırat’s brisk ıslak burger trade. “We won’t be affected by [the opening of] these places,” Kar said. “The ıslak hamburger is something different. We have our own clientele. These big places may open and attract a lot of people to the area. So we will sell more ıslak burgers, I suppose.”
We hope Mr. Kar is right. Needless to say, we’ll be watching this new high-powered burger battle with keen interest, hoping that Tünel’s soul – in the form of Fırat Büfe and its ıslak burger – doesn’t get lost in the crossfire.
(top photo by Ansel Mullins; bottom photo by Yigal Schleifer)