Editor’s Note: The recent string of terror attacks in Istanbul has left us heartbroken over the violent cruelty being inflicted on the city we love. It has also made us more determined to tell the stories of places like the one in this review, veteran establishments that have seen Istanbul go through both good and bad times and which speak of this city’s incredible resilience.
On our way to dinner one Friday evening, we hopped in a cab headed for Tarlabaşı, a rather infamous neighborhood in the dead center of Istanbul in which many people still refuse to set foot.
The area was a longtime hotbed of Greek and Armenian artisans and tradesmen, once the backbone of Ottoman-era Istanbul’s commercial life, who erected rows of gorgeous European-style apartment buildings beginning in the 19th century. Many stand proudly today, while dozens of others are fenced off and awaiting renovation as part of an invasive gentrification project that seeks to remodel the now decrepit, impoverished Tarlabaşı.
By the end of 1970s, Tarlabaşı’s Greeks and Armenians had packed up and left the neighborhood and the country, following difficult decades of anti-minority policies and attacks. In their place came a motley crew of other disenfranchised people: Kurds fleeing conflict in the southeast of the country, Roma living on the fringes of society, transgender sex workers, economic migrants and political refugees.
The local municipality eventually decided it was time to “clean things up” and began demolition, paving the way for upmarket residential and office spaces. Nearly five years later, the project is far from complete, having been dragged down by legal issues and structural problems. The construction site and its corrugated metal fencing have cast a deep, dark shadow on an already troubled area, and this is exactly where we found ourselves after our cabbie made a wrong turn on the way up the impossibly steep hill towards our dinner destination.
We saw a man sprawled out across the sidewalk with his legs jutting into the street, a crushed beer can adorning his sunken chest. Turning the corner, we found ourselves facing a dead-end and noticed a young man standing on the corner, casually thumbing through an inch-thick wad of cash. Not being excited about being stuck between a wall and the neighborhood drug dealer, our driver quickly reversed and took the immediate right, eventually bringing us to our final destination, Asır.
Steps away from the main boulevard and adjacent to a police station that has since been demolished, it’s not exactly the most inviting setting. A middle-aged prostitute wearily puffed on a cigarette while slumped on the stoop next door, her expression beyond exhausted.
Once we entered Asır, a spacious meyhane (or Turkish-style taverna) on the basement floor, the troubling scenes outside faded away amid the nostalgic, photograph-lined wicker walls (for years it was called Hasır, Turkish for wicker, before eventually dropping the H and becoming Asır, meaning ‘century’ or ‘era’) and the warm demeanor of the elderly waiters in their crimson sweaters. Opened in 1948 by Niko Taş, a local Greek hailing from a family of meyhane operators, Asır was passed down to his adopted son, Hakkı, who continues to run the place today with a staff of true veterans.
“I started out washing dishes when I was 14,” said Ali bey, the meze master, adding that he learned his trade on the job. He’s spent the last 30 years here, and has perfected his craft in the process.
“This entire street was Greek,” chimed in Mesut bey, a waiter with a beaming smile who has worked at Asır for 45 years. He’s witnessed a series of dramatic changes during his long stint. On Kalyoncu Kulluğu Street, traces of the Greeks are evident: proud buildings remain in addition to an ornate Greek Orthodox church prominently featured in the iconic film “Ağır Roman,” which was set and filmed in Tarlabaşı.
Ali bey’s meze all bore the mark of expertise, from the smooth, savory fava spread to the pungent, garlicky haydari. We also chose the lahana sarması (stuffed cabbage) and a plate of marvelous homemade pickles one is more likely to find on the shelves of their grandmother’s larder than at a meyhane.
Asır always has seasonal fish on hand ready to be grilled up at reasonable prices and features a selection of classic meyhane hot appetizers, including an exceptional pachanga böreği, a crispy, savory pastry with melted kaşar cheese and aromatic strips of pastırma. We inquired about their famous kokoreç but were told it had not arrived on the menu yet this season, which means we will be going back for a visit soon.
That Friday evening visit saw a room with mostly empty tables, a rather depressing sight one wouldn’t have likely encountered a year or two ago. There are many factors involved: the elephant in the room that is the nearby demolition zone and major transformations in the central Beyoğlu district that have favored commerce and tourism, both of which have suffered dearly following a deadly bomb attack on the main İstiklal Avenue earlier this year, scaring off locals and foreign visitors alike.
In the midst of it all, Asır is a beacon of dependability and represents everything we love about a good meyhane. Waiters who are friendly and knowledgeable and not pushy in the slightest, mezes made by the hands of a master, an interesting crowd of regulars – not to mention the memory-laden walls, echoing decades worth of conversations and glasses clinked.
Note: While Asır is a wonderful place to hunker down in the winter, during the summer it closes, and its sister meyhane Yeni İdeal Restaurant opens in its place on the serene island of Burgazada. Expect the same high levels of food and service.