These days, writing about Istanbul’s old-school restaurants can be heartbreaking work. No sooner do we find out about a classic lunch spot than it turns out the place is about to be closed down to make way for yet another development project. Meanwhile, Istanbul’s relentless drive to modernize and “clean up” its streets has meant there is less and less room for traditional food vendors to operate. We weren’t surprised to learn that one of our favorite street food sellers, the bespectacled man who provided freshly peeled cucumbers by the Galata Tower, recently gave up his iconic perch after being relentlessly squeezed by the municipal authorities.
We were fully prepared, then, to be heartbroken yet again when we found İstiridye Balık Lokantası, a venerable fish restaurant, no longer at its decades-old location on Mumhane Caddesi, a street in the waterfront Karaköy area that has so many good restaurants along it that it acts as a kind of a culinary vortex, radiating a magnetic pull that we find hard to resist.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm. Rather than closed, the 80-year-old İstiridye had simply moved down the street. While the new space is smaller and brighter, lacking the clubby aura that the previous dark-wood-paneled location exuded, the dedicated clientele remains the same: a lunchtime crowd of local office workers and executives with exacting tastes. Karaköy, once a busy port area, remains a mostly commercial zone (though one that’s increasingly home to new galleries and hip cafes), with elegant buildings housing shipping and holding companies. The people who come to İstiridye expect the restaurant to serve food whose quality is consistent, because, it would appear, many of them seem to come here every day.
Even better, the simple menu and the staff – serious-faced waiters in crimson vests and crisp ties who hustle from table to table – have not changed. The chowder-like fish soup (delicious) is still on offer, as is the small assortment of fresh fish, most of them – perhaps so that the busy customers don’t have to work too hard to eat their lunch – deboned, skewered with green pepper and onion and grilled over coals.
We opted for the dil şiş, thin strips of flounder that are rolled up and grilled on a skewer. The fish was superb, the outside of the fillets slightly charred and crisp, the inside moist and tender. The table next to us ordered levrek şiş, large chunks of sea bass fillets that were also skewered and grilled, and which also looked very tasty.
We finished our meal off with nothing more than a simple glass of tea, pondering the tremendous amount of change all around us. Down the street, excavators were busy digging a big pit that appeared destined to be a new high-rise, while a few doors down a narrow Ottoman-era house, long unoccupied, had been turned into a four-story boutique selling handmade jewelry and designer clothes. İstiridye’s new digs may be without the same old-fashioned charm as its former spot, but in today’s Istanbul, even a move down the street can be considered permanence.