Cumhuriyet Avenue bridges the central Istanbul districts of Beyoğlu and Şişli, and is flanked on its eastern side by a number of large complexes including the city’s expansive Military Museum, the iconic Hilton and Divan Hotels, a towering officer’s club, and a public theater and convention center. In contrast, its western strip consists of a lengthy row of multistory apartment buildings, mostly modern but with a few gems from the turn of the century, housing tourism agencies and foreign consulates.
Behind these lie the Harbiye quarter, home to a collection of smaller, charming historic buildings, most of which have seen much better days. It is a generally safe area if a bit seedy, with a number of questionable nightclubs on basement floors; a variety of folks offering different kinds of illicit entertainment can be found strolling the avenue on weekend nights. In recent years, inevitable gentrification has resulted in the appearance of a few boutique hotels and a couple hip clubs offering some of the city’s best electronic music.
In the middle of it all, located behind a nondescript entryway on the right side of Cumhuriyet Avenue when facing Taksim Square, is Pub Avni, whose modern, brightly-lit signage and small outdoor seating area belie the beautiful, nostalgia-inducing bar found inside. Immediately on the right when you enter is a sharp, compact wood-paneled bar with about half a dozen stools, followed by a narrow hallway that spills out into a gorgeous main bar, with more handsome wood paneling and plenty of places to sit. Behind this is the dining room, featuring both tables and leather-upholstered booth seats.
On duty behind bar is Celal bey, a tall, lanky 65-year-old who looks a decade younger and has a penchant for stylish button-ups. He’s been serving drinks at Pub Avni since its inception in 1973. The bar, which has been referred to as Istanbul’s first pub, at least in the Western sense of the term, was opened by its namesake Avni Salbaş, a revered bartender known for his previous post at the Divan Hotel bar, a haunt frequented by journalists, writers and celebrities. Pub Avni is exactly what one might expect an American-style bar built in 1970s Istanbul to look like. In sum: it looks amazing.
When grilling Celal bey about the bar’s famous customers, our eyes popped out of our head when we heard the words James Baldwin. Himself a friend of Avni bey, whom he met during his stint in Istanbul between the early 1960s and 70s, the celebrated writer would come to drink at Pub Avni during his later visits to the city.
And what was Baldwin’s poison? “Whisky,” Celal bey plainly stated, as if any other drink was possible.
Avni Salbaş passed away two years ago, going out as a legend in the Istanbul bar scene. He was an Afro-Turk (the name given to descendants of Ottoman-era African slaves, of which there is a sizeable community mostly around the Aegean coast) who in addition to his native Turkish spoke English and French and had a brigade of regulars dating from his Divan Hotel days. In a 1988 interview for the daily Hürriyet, Salbaş said that in the early days of his career, whisky was the drink of choice at the bar, and that for every ten glasses of whisky ordered, he served one glass of rakı. By the late 80s, this ratio had reversed in favor of rakı. Salbaş clearly cherished his profession and waxed philosophical on it, saying, “A bartender never drinks on the job, but a bartender who doesn’t drink is out of the question.”
“Celal bey is currently the most famous bartender in Turkey,” one veteran customer said.
The average age of the customers at Pub Avni is around 50, and most of them are longtime stalwarts. “Ninety percent of the people that come here are regulars,” Celal bey said. At this point, the gentleman to our right, who has been coming to the bar for the last 15 years, piped up. “Celal bey is currently the most famous bartender in Turkey,” he said. The modest barkeep groaned in protest at this lofty proclamation. But with Avni gone, Celal bey has begun to develop a similarly legendary status.
“People come here just to chat with him,” the customer added.
Over the past several years, the prices of alcoholic drinks have increased dramatically thanks to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s notorious contempt for swill. As of this writing, the tax on booze had just gone up another 15.5 percent. This has spawned a legion of home brewers throughout the country, as it has become unaffordable for many people to go out and drink. But Pub Avni’s regulars, older, well-to-do folks, will keep coming in spite of the hefty bar tabs.
“It doesn’t affect us whatsoever,” Celal bey said of the tax hikes. “There could be a revolution and it wouldn’t affect us,” he continued, a testament to the loyalty of Pub Avni’s barflies.
At 20 TL ($4.20) for a pint of Tuborg on tap, it’s certainly not the cheapest place to drink, but the inimitable setting and complementary bar snacks make it more than worth it. On one visit, we were treated to sour green plums and a serving of paçanga böreği (a delicious savory pastry stuffed with pastırma and melty kaşar cheese) while on another occasion we enjoyed endless plates of sliced pickles over ice, seedless red grapes and mixed nuts.
Setting foot into Pub Avni is a comforting reprise in a city undergoing constant change, usually for the worse. It is an Istanbul institution built on the foundation of friendly service and attention to detail.
“Atmosphere, coziness, conversation and intermingling with one another are all important,” Celal bey said.
All can be found at Pub Avni, one impenetrable fortress in a city of fallen castles.