In the realm of Turkey’s small businesses, the esnaf lokantası (tradesmen’s restaurant) hovers above everything like a uniting holy spirit. A good one certainly is divine in nature. Take just about any old esnaf lokantası, and you’re sure to encounter a community that only exists at that particular spot on earth.
At Tunçlar Lokantası, not far from Istanbul’s downtown area of Taksim Square, the workers from the small shops on Cumhuriyet Caddesi would share tables with the bureaucrats from TRT Radio. At the next table, an old locksmith from the streets off of Elmadağ Caddesi might share a loaf of bread with an independent bookkeeper who was still around thanks to paying stabilized rent in a charitable foundation-owned building. For all of the people who crowded the room on a regular basis, Tunçlar was the center of their Venn diagram, the point at which disparate lives overlapped for some good, honest home cooking.
On a recent lunch excursion to Tunçlar, we were distraught to see metal barriers blocking off the lovely row houses around Elmadağ Caddesi. Though Tunçlar’s doors stubbornly remained open for another week or two, in the end, the venue lost the fight with a major redevelopment project that was already well underway. “I feel bad for the esnaf [tradespeople] around here. That was one of only two good lokantas in the whole area,” said gourmand and Tunçlar regular Murat Deha Boduroğlu.
We felt equally bad about this turn of events and wondered what Vizzion, the Belgian redeveloper of the Taksim area, had planned for this massive historic block. From the backside, it looked as though another of Istanbul’s numerous tunnel projects was underway, this one burrowing straight to China! According to a report in Habertürk newspaper, however, the pit will eventually be home to a hotel/convention center/shopping mall, Şan City, named after a well-known theater that once stood on the spot.
In the same report, project manager Selim Dalaman revealed that Elmadağ Caddesi, home to the lovely row houses where Tunçlar lived for so many years, is slated for a project called “Gurme Sokağı” (“Gourmet Street”). World-renowned Michelin-starred chefs have been consulted for the project, which is to feature the best of world cuisines. When we contacted Mr. Dalaman for further details, he was unable to flesh out the plan for us, telling us merely that a detailed research project was underway. Whatever the developers have in mind, however, we suspect that there will not be an esnaf lokantası on Gurme Sokağı.
Istanbul is losing one of the loveliest, most undisturbed historic streets in the city so that shoppers can have yet another mall at their disposal. When the dust settles, will Tunçlar Lokantası, a longtime neighborhood institution, have really been chased off of the street for a food court dreamed up by Belgian developers? Erasing the past is one thing, but challenging the sanctity of the esnaf lokantası is something far more grave. The developers who so cavalierly kicked out Tunçlar’s down-home cooks in favor of Michelin-starred chefs may not realize this, but they have left the area with a culinary and cultural hole far deeper and harder to fill than the one their bulldozers are busy digging.
(top two photos by Elizabeth Ganley-Roper; bottom photo by Ansel Mullins)