Editor’s note: [We’re pleased to report that Barba has reopened in a new location. See below for address.] We’re going on a Global Bar Crawl this week, and today we’re stopping at a building in Istanbul that has five floors of bars and clubs. Tomorrow we head to Mexico City for some mezcal.
We like to think of the building at the corner of Sakız Ağacı Caddesi and Küçük Bayram Sokak as the mullet of the Beyoğlu neighborhood’s entertainment venues – out front is a tidy, little Armenian Catholic church, but in the back, it’s a wild and tangled mess of a party.
Of the several bars and clubs that occupy the five floors of the building, Barba is the one we usually set out for, but the presence of its colorful neighbors can add much to the excursion. Upon entering the building, we’ve often been drawn into the first-floor venue, Pikap, which has live music most nights. On one recent visit, the house band segued from Turkish rock covers right into a reeling Black Sea number led by a synthesizer. A member of the audience sitting in barked quick, sharp and unintelligible words into the microphone. A man, stripped to the waist, got on stage and belly danced among the musicians as several other patrons joined hands in a line dance led by a woman waving a napkin in the air. It was smoky and dark but for lasers and stage lights. The waitresses were doing a brisk business in flights of colorful shots.
Heading upstairs you might cross paths with a group of saddle-shoed swing dancers or a tango troupe, depending on which night of the week it is. On the top floor is a practice space for both.
Up one flight is Cukka, a cavernous, all-inclusive dinner revue venue with traditional fasıl music every night of the week. When we stopped in, it looked like a wedding reception in full swing – everyone danced and sang along with the band. If this is the sort of party you’d like to join, reserve a table in advance or take a chance crashing it.
With all of the fun downstairs, it’s hard to make it up to third floor sober, but gird yourself, for behind the battered black door of Barba there is much to drink and just the sort of vibe that makes us want to stick around for a few rounds.
“We wanted this place to feel like a real bar, with an actual bar,” said co-owner Cem Köklükaya, seated at the handsome U-shaped bar that dominates the room. “It forces people to interact.”
Indeed, in the process of getting a round of drinks, we met an Armenian from Paris working for the Hrant Dink Foundation and a curator from Rotterdam who heckled us for our order of Duvel: “That beer sponsors the fascist party in Belgium!”
The man in the corner in the gray Oberlin sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows ordered a round for the two women sitting clear across the room. “How can you be trusted if you don’t have a beard?” said a young Turkish woman seated between us and the promise of Belgian beer, as if asking for a password. Solemn drinkers beware, this is not the place for a quiet one after work.
Cem, a musician with the neo-traditional group Cümbüş Cemaat, and his two partners set out to build a “neighborhood bar with no neighborhood” and it seems to have hit the sweet spot of a diverse expat community, a smattering of the old Beyoğlu bohemians and the wide circle of friends of the owners spread all over the city.
So what’s the recipe for success?
Good beer: aside from Belgian offerings, there are about 20 more international craft brews in the bottle for those willing to pay $10 or more for a beer. For the budget-conscious there are always local standbys Bomonti and Efes on tap.
Good music: Cem is responsible for most of the playlists; “from Johnny Cash to Müslüm Gürses” is how he described it.
A cozy, well-designed environment: beat up-chairs and tables, black painted walls with the bar’s offerings written in chalk and wide antique mirrors provide a patina to attractive, functional design choices such as chic copper lighting, and the hulking bar made of salvaged wood.
More than any particular element of the place, the overall Barba experience convinced us that this was not a business but a popup or a gag cooked up by three friends sitting around a bottle one night. “If my mom had a bar, it’d be just like this place,” Cem said. It’s that house party feeling that creeps into your personal space upon entry and extends to the bartender-patron relationship (it was never clear to us who behind the bar was working and who was just helping themselves to a drink), and everyone seems much more relaxed as a result.
Around 2 a.m. on Sunday morning Barba makes last call for the week, hours before Armenian grannies toddle past here on their way into church. Time for one last drink? The party at Cheeky Club, next door, is just getting warmed up.
(photos by Ayman Oghanna)
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