Down the street from Istanbul’s upmarket Etiler neighborhood and above the even-glitzier shoreside quarter of Bebek lies Hisarüstü, a ragtag maze of unplanned urban growth that happens to be adjacent to the newer campus of Bogaziçi University, Turkey’s most prestigious college.
Once upon a time the area was home to a pig farm, but Hisarüstü became quickly built up as Anatolian migrants rapidly settled in Istanbul, not shying away from the area despite its location on an impossibly steep hill.
Though Etiler and Bebek are among the city’s most prestigious areas, Hisarüstü doesn’t get much attention from outside visitors – if you don’t live in the neighborhood or attend Boğaziçi, you likely have no reason to go there. But Hisarüstü has a vibrant energy that is a combination of its existence as a thriving student hub and an urban, working-class residential area, still chockfull of the gecekondu (literally meaning “built overnight”) buildings that popped up amid the intensification of rural to urban migration.
Just past the entrance to the university’s older south campus, which features some of the Istanbul’s most pristine, awe-inspiring views of the Bosphorus and its coastline, is a stretch of Nispetiye Avenue, the area’s main street, lined with restaurants and bars mostly patronized by Boğaziçi students. It’s here, just above a popular bakery, that you can find Bakar Ocakbaşı (Şükru Baba’nın Yeri), which has become a beloved hangout spot for students, faculty, graduates and local residents alike.
Şükrü Baba, the establishment’s namesake, has since passed on, but son Cemal Bey and grandson Uğur continue to run the place today. Near the entrance, a large framed photograph of mustachioed Şükrü stares resolutely out over the dining room. Opened in 1996, Bakar Ocakbaşı was taken over by Şükrü and Cemal two years later, and has been run by the family ever since.
The place looks like it hasn’t changed since he took it over, and that’s part of the charm.
With short-cropped snow-white hair and black bushy eyebrows, Cemal Bey appears rather surly and intimidating to the uninitiated, but he, like his son Uğur, is a warm, friendly gentleman that enjoys a nice chat. The place looks like it hasn’t changed since he took it over, and that’s part of the charm. Rows of no-frills tables sit between walls lined with a mishmash of picture frames.
Cemal and Uğur man the bar while Çoşkun Bey runs the floor. The meze counter is limited to about a dozen selections, including excellent versions of classics like haydari (garlicky yogurt dip), acılı ezme (a spicy mélange of chopped tomatoes and peppers) and börülce (black-eyed peas topped with chopped parsley, olive oil and lemon juice).
But Bakar is, after all, an ocakbaşı (grill joint) with a perhaps unusual specialty: chicken. What come off the grill are hefty, boneless strips of the most succulent, tender, mouthwatering chicken we have ever eaten. On our most recent visit, the usta manning the mangal was off, so Çoşkun Bey doubled duties, taking orders then swiftly grilling them himself. When we asked about the secret behind the chicken, Çoşkun replied, matter-of-factly, “The sauce.” He then added that the chicken is marinated for a full 24 hours before it meets the grill. With a grin, we inquired about the recipe but, as expected, details were not divulged.
On a recent Monday night, things were rather slow, but expect a full house on the weekends. The table behind us was a group of men from the neighborhood, while the table in front included professors from Boğaziçi. While visiting during a national holiday, the place was about half full, and since the current students were out of town, the crowd consisted of late 20- and early 30-somethings, likely Boğaziçi graduates nostalgic for the watering hole of their student years. We count ourselves among this group, having lived in Hisarüstü and studied at Boğaziçi a decade ago. The appeal of the beautiful campus, now unfortunately closed to those without a school ID, and the surrounding neighborhoods have a strong pull, and we find ourselves coming back fairly often.
A host of newer bars and other student-oriented establishments have opened up in recent years, perhaps thanks to the long-awaited metro that finally opened in 2015. Beforehand, the only public transit options were a few buses that were liable to get stuck in the heavy traffic plaguing Etiler and Levent; the metro has made access easy and the area more desirable. Perhaps due to the transitory nature of the neighborhood’s population, with students constantly coming and going, the area’s establishments also seem to experience a heavy turnover rate. One constant, however, is Bakar Ocakbaşı, as its slightly louche atmosphere, friendly staff, excellent fare and reasonable prices ensure its status as a local institution. On our way out, Uğur Bey served us a yolluk (“one for the road,” a rakı glass filled with beer), which he referred to as a “Dallas,” owing to the wild popularity of that ‘80s TV show in Turkey.
If it was the weekend and we were feeling ambitious, we would have ambled over next door to La Liberta, an excellent dive bar and another of our favorite spots in Hisarüstü. But alas, it was only a Monday, and we’re not 21 anymore.