The past year in Istanbul seemed to be dominated by discussions of financial woes. Amid an ongoing economic crisis, the lira shed half of its value between January and August, resulting in a spike in prices of even the most basic staples. Everything seemed expensive in relation to Turkish wages, which dramatically declined in value literally overnight. People who wanted to leave the country couldn’t, as foreign currency became too expensive to obtain.
Naturally, prices on the menu also shot up, but Istanbul’s restaurant scene has remained thriving amid the recession. In 2018, we found a number of the city’s classic establishments doing business as usual, while some well-received newcomers joined the fold to major success even in these troubled times. Allow us to present Istanbul’s Best Bites of 2018.
Though we were certainly no stranger to Istanbul’s “Little Antep,” the Köyiçi neighborhood in the suburb of Güngören, it somehow took us until this year to visit the area’s most famous establishment. Bağdat Ocakbaşı is Köyiçi’s ultimate destination, and it is so popular they opened up a second branch a few streets away. The expansive, quirky dining room features stool seating around a marble fountain, the ideal spot for solo diners.
The menu is a simple affair of expertly grilled dürüm, including standard choices like Adana and tavuk şiş (skewered chicken) in addition to more hardcore options such dalak (spleen) and yürek (heart). We can’t recommend their excellent Adana dürüm enough, having traveled an hour each way to get it more than once.
Opened in 1895 in the Yedikule neighborhood, Safa Meyhanesi is housed in a charming brick building that remains in tip-top shape despite accommodating a century’s worth of revelers. Initially a rough-and-tumble meyhane patronized by railroad workers, the place was taken over by Süleyman Kızıltay, an Istanbulite of Albanian roots, in 1948. Over the years, the meyhane has become one of the most sought-after, iconic venues of its kind in Istanbul, owing to the high standards maintained by the late Kızıltay’s son Arif, who is 77 and has been working in various capacities at Safa since he was 10.
Featuring a simple yet deeply dependable menu of classic, delicious meze and hot appetizers, Safa’s culinary offerings in conjunction with its enchanting interior and warm service rank it among the best meyhanes in Istanbul.
We were luckily tipped off to this Fındıkzade institution (which shares its moniker with the last name of the brothers who run it as well as their signature sandwich) after sharing a lovely Orhan Pamuk essay about the history of street food in Istanbul. The Goralı brothers trace their roots to a small Muslim ethnic group with their own unique Slavic dialect from the Gora region of Kosovo. Their namesake sandwich was invented around the same time that the first sandwich grill/presses arrived in Turkey over a half century ago, and it hasn’t changed since. The Goralı consists of spiced, meatless bulgur köfte, thin strips of lightly grilled salami, a creamy, loving homemade take on Amerikan salatası (known elsewhere as Russian salad) and sliced pickles all crammed into a grilled hot dog bun.
You are likely to see what claims to be a Goralı sandwich in various büfeler throughout the country, but to taste the authentic version of one of Turkey’s first fast-food items, there is only one location.
Toward the end of the summer, we heard rumors of a new joint (it actually opened late last year) serving the best burgers in Istanbul. We rushed to Zula, a small, well-designed space tucked away on a side street in the Harbiye neighborhood near the Vatican consulate. The rumors were true: Zula’s spectacular burger, with its velvety bun, zesty pickle relish and tantalizing truffle mayonnaise, is the best the city has to offer. If that wasn’t enough, Zula also serves up a Sonoran hot dog (where the dog is wrapped in bacon and topped with pinto beans), a style popular in Arizona that we were shocked to see on this side of the Atlantic, and surprisingly tasty tacos that are the closest thing to Mexican food you’ll find in this city.
Zula’s owner, Cihan Kıpçak, perhaps best known for his stint as the chef of Wolfgang Puck’s Istanbul branch of Spago, went on to co-launch Batard this November in the Bomonti neighborhood. This impeccably designed restaurant serves high-end cuisine informed by French flavors, with remarkably reasonable prices to boot. The crispy rounds of polenta dipped in truffle aioli are an excellent starter, and we were dazzled by their exquisite lamb shoulder, served over a bed of spicy “Aztec” beans and topped with strips of pickled beets. Like Zula, Batard has quickly won over the hearts of many Istanbul diners, and we are excited to see what Kıpçak does next.
When Oğuzhan Sayı decided to take over the reigns from his late father, a respected Istanbul usta of kokoreç – grilled, chopped, and liberally spiced bits (ideally) made from choice lamb intestines – he may not have been prepared for the controversy and hoopla that followed. Opening a sparkling new storefront in the Asmalımescit neighborhood after deciding it was no longer viable to continue in his father’s old shop in a historic building in Dolapdere, he also debuted a reservation-only policy that led to lots of grumbling and allegations of snobbery. Yet it’s in place for a reason: to ensure maximum quality because Sayı rolls his product by hand, a technique rarely used in Istanbul today.
Any naysaying has been widely overshadowed by the media buzz that Sayı and his new shop have received in the months since it has opened. The hype is deserved, and the proof is in Sayı’s excellent kokoreç, sucuk, and homemade sausage. Just don’t show up without a reservation.
As 2018 comes to a close, the lira has somewhat recovered since hitting its lowest point in August. Discussions of economic woes remain a main topic of conversation, but they are often held over a plate of meze, grilled meat and ice-cold rakı. Istanbul’s resilient food culture and restaurant scene has thrived while other sectors haven’t, and we look forward to another year of excellent dining in the greatest city on Earth.