The esnaf lokantası is Turkey’s gift to the working man and woman. While in many parts of the world, lunch during the work week means eating an uninspiring sandwich or salad inside a lonely cubicle at the office, workers in Turkey have the esnaf lokantası (“tradesman’s restaurant” in Turkish). Outfitted with a steam table that usually holds dozens of ready-made and utterly homey dishes, it is much more than simply a canteen. In reality, it is the place that keeps a hungry nation going. We’ve rounded up
five six of our favorite esnaf lokantaları in Istanbul.
Mutfak Dili: Tradesmens’ Paradise
Istanbul Eats lunch hunting tip #1:
Wander into one of Istanbul’s numerous districts of small commerce and find yourself on a small street with a shoe cobbler, a knife sharpener, and hardware shops.
Enter one of those shops, preferably one where two old men are sitting at the counter looking at the horse racing form or working the crossword puzzle.
Ask them where they eat lunch. (Note: They might misinterpret your question and try to send you to the place they think you should eat lunch.) Repeat the question clearly, “where do you eat lunch?”
Follow their instructions to the nearest esnaf lokantasi*.
Doyuran Lokantası: Working Class Hero
We usually steer clear of the touristy old city district of Kumkapı, where you are more likely to be accosted by an aggressive maitre d’ trying to corral you into his overpriced fish restaurant than to find something simple, tasty and reasonably priced to eat. Sadly, in order to beat the competition next door, most of Kumkapı’s famed fish restaurants seem to have invested more in aggressive customer corralling tactics than in kitchen talent. However, tucked into the neighborhood’s backstreets, we’ve found a few hidden dining gems that locals in the know frequent.
Lades: Old Faithful
If Lades, which means “wishbone” in Turkish, provided an actual wishbone alongside the usual post-meal wet wipe and toothpick, we’d close our eyes and make a wish that we could eat their tandır (oven-roasted baby lamb) seven days a week. These large knots of tender, fragrant meat lined with a soft cushion of fat are the sort of high-calorie lunch that we might save for a special occasion but Lades regulars take for granted.
Hayvore: Black Sea Magic
The Black Sea area is Turkey’s culinary misfit; it’s not really about kebabs or mezes. If anything, the food — cornbread, collard greens, smoky bean stews—seems to have been mysteriously transplanted from the American Deep South. It’s simple, filling, down-home food, and Hayvore is a great—and affordable — spot to get acquainted with it.
Hayvore is the pride and joy of Hızır Bey, a shaggy-haired restaurateur who had previously been the driving force at another Black Sea restaurant but left after a disagreement with its owners, taking with him the kitchen’s A team, including the feisty old lady who prepares the Black Sea specialty dishes and the man working the pide oven. After Hızır’s departure, the quality at his previous restaurant took a turn for the worse and we were feeling a bit lost for a period.
Şahin Lokantası: Edible Complex
For Turks, mealtime is often a complicated emotional drama, one that revolves around a lifelong effort to return to the culinary womb – in other words, their mother’s kitchen. In Turkey, Mom’s cooking sets the standard by which all others are judged and, truth be told, some of the finest meals we’ve had here have been home-cooked ones.
Of course, it’s difficult to sneak back home in the middle of the busy workday for a taste of mom’s eggplant stew or her köfte. Which is where the esnaf lokantası, a type of no-frills canteen that is Turkey’s most ubiquitous restaurant, comes in. Although roughly translated as a “tradesmen’s restaurant,” it is really an extension of the home kitchen, a place where the spirit of everyone’s mother seems to be stirring the pots.
NATO Lokantası: The Lunchtime Alliance
Turkish politics make for a great lunch counter conversation. These days, one of the hot topics is a perceived axis shift, as if Ankara, feeling burned by the West, has turned the gaze of the Republic eastward, as easily as a dönerci reverses the rotation of his spit. But down in Karaköy at NATO Lokantası, an esnaf lokantası named in honor of Turkey’s entry into the Western Bloc some six decades ago, the tenor of the debate is still decidedly Cold War-era.
“One lady comes up to pay, says to me, ‘If I’d known this place was called NATO, I wouldn’t have eaten here,’ and walks out. Clearly a communist,” said manager Mevlüt Bey from his perch at the cash register.
But she must have been an exception. On our visits to NATO Lokantası, we have found the place to be in high spirits.