Call it the Sultanahmet Squeeze: How to stay close to the monuments of the Old City yet avoid eating in tourist traps? We get asked this question a lot. Since the Sultanahmet area is primarily a tourism zone, locals-only haunts are few and far between. At most restaurants, prices tend to be higher than usual, while quality and service are unreliable at best. That said, there are some fine places to eat in the area. We’ve compiled a short list of restaurants to help you avoid the traps.
Giritli deserves more space than we can afford it here. This elegant yet comfortable fish restaurant, serving food typical of the Turks who once lived on the island of Crete, is filled most nights with groups of locals and tourists taking advantage of a prix fixe menu that includes bottomless glasses of local wine, rakı or beer. But the food here more than holds its own. While the grilled octopus leg in olive oil is close to perfect, we get really worked up for the seafood and orzo salad and the olives stuffed with walnuts and feta – part of the dozen or so mezes brought to the table. In the warm months Giritli’s garden is just as pleasant as any rooftop terrace. (Set menu for 105 TL/person includes local wine, beer or rakı.)
Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi
Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi is the real deal for köfte, or meatballs. All those framed, handwritten letters from movie stars, politicians and military generals that cover the walls of this Sultanahmet mainstay are not complaints. The restaurant’s İnegöl-style köfte – that’s the log format of the meatball, not the patty – is pleasantly springy, aromatic and juicy. When dressed with a spicy red pepper sauce (served upon request) and stuffed into a fresh hunk of bread, it borders on divine. We like to sit in the front room at the old marble tables to watch the action at the grill.
We found this little grilled fish and beer dive one day while popping out for a drink from a dry wedding at Dede Efendi, the lovely wooden dervish lodge nearby. With a simple menu dominated by fresh seafood at reasonable prices, a smattering of rickety tables and colorful locals sipping rakı, this is just the sort of place a concierge might tell you avoid. In warm weather, when they drag a few tables out onto the sidewalk, there are few better places in Sultanahmet to eat a simple grilled fish washed down with a cold beer.
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Editor’s note: We regret to report that Vonalı Celal has closed.
Located on the coastal road that hugs Istanbul’s ancient city walls, Vonalı Celal serves a wide range of homey and satisfying Black Sea dishes, with fresh bread baked in its brick oven. The restaurant offers a prix fixe menu with five courses – one of which is devoted to all things pickled, including green plums and cherries – and some 20-plus dishes; price-wise, it’s a fairly good deal. Highlights of our meal included çeşni, a dip made of tangy, crumbly white cheese and walnuts; white cabbage leaves stuffed with rice; yumurtalı sakarca, a Spanish omelet-like egg dish that was stuffed with herbs and pearl onions; and kaldırık, a wild green stewed in olive oil. We also enjoyed the kuymak (aka muhlama), a kind of Black Sea fondue made by mixing melted cheese and butter together with cornmeal. Although we went à la carte on our visit, we still left Vonalı Celal feeling stuffed to the gills and satisfied.