In an opinion piece published recently in the Latitude blog of The New York Times, veteran Turkey correspondent Andrew Finkel’s brutally honest appraisal of the state of “New Turkish Cuisine” called much of Istanbul’s restaurant establishment – down to the customers – into question. We’ve had similar misgivings after meals in some upscale nouveau meyhanes where fussy food and too much attention to interior design end up spoiling an atmosphere that is supposed to be fun.
When trying new restaurants these days, we are rarely reminded of the time when we first fell in love with a table here. That place may have had a white tablecloth, but it was one freckled with cigarette burns. There was certainly a bottle of rakı in the center of a pile of mezes and a crowd drinking, laughing and even dancing around it. Tables were dragged around to accommodate the social cross-pollination that happens when such a room is in full swing. The waiters, with their way-too-long belts and V-neck sweaters, were available for anything: a quick run to the corner store for another pack of cigarettes, a lottery ticket or the freshest fruit available after midnight. These were feasts less about what was eaten than the way it was eaten. Though not the type of images that would grace the pages of Gourmet magazine, the memories of these simple meals are what still get us out on a Saturday night.
For a long time we had no place to rekindle this flame, until we found Perazin, a newly opened meyhane with an old soul. It would be easy to dismiss Perazin as a mere tavern – musty, loud and with a limited menu. True, it is housed in a single boxcar-like room on the third floor of a building that would probably be condemned in any other city. But naysayers miss the real value of this place. It is a refuge for people who enjoy good food but will not put down a month’s wages on an evening out; who do not need a Wi-Fi connection during dinner; who do not take the experience of dining out for granted, but squeeze the most out of (and into) this brief luxury. Occupying a table for an evening at Perazin feels like joining a protest against all that has gone wrong with Istanbul’s dining scene.
Perazin is the work of Hüseyin Bey, the creator of the Metalurji Mühendisliği Lokali, a legendary meyhane – now closed – in Taksim Square. “This is our neighborhood place. Our neighborhood is made up of democratic, worldly people,” he says, adding that anyone who fits that description is welcome. As we previously witnessed at his last venue, Hüseyin has a knack for expanding “his neighborhood,” as most visitors are quick converts. His meze offerings are simple but reliably fresh, if a bit on the salty side. A slice of white cheese, a passable şakşuka (sautéed eggplant and tomato) and a salad of greens grown in Hüseyin’s garden are a good way to start the meal. Seasonal fish, fried or grilled, are on offer for the main course. We always go for whatever looks easiest to share and double the order. A meal here rarely exceeds 35 TL per person, so we like to stretch it out for as long as possible, savoring every nibble and sip.
On Friday and Saturday nights, when a rollicking Greek folk band takes the stage, the true spirit of Perazin is released and inhibitions are checked at the door. Glasses of rakı clink together with greater frequency. “Şerefe!” “To your honor!” they toast. A fat man scoots his chair back and throws himself into a shimmy of his upper body in the narrow space between tables as the band breaks into a familiar Anatolian tune sung as easily in Greek as in Turkish.
In his photographs of Beyoğlu in the 1950’s, the legendary Armenian-Turkish photographer Ara Güler sometimes captured this moment when rakı, mezes and music brought joy to the lives of working-class neighborhood people. He frequented the forerunners of Perazin in Krepen Pasajı and down in the side streets of Galata. Today, those same streets are home to Dubai-esque “meyhanes” where orders are placed from an iPad and big-name chefs jockey to put their stamp on otherwise simple, traditional mezes in order to satisfy the expectations of what might be a mere culinary bubble. If that bubble bursts, we are confident that after the dust settles, a little bit of that old meyhane spirit will still be alive at Perazin.