In search of new adventures, we recently decided to venture to Beykoz, on the northern end of Istanbul’s Anatolian side, near where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea. Getting there required an hour-long ferry ride – basically a mini Bosphorus cruise – from Üsküdar, and upon arrival we immediately felt catapulted out of the chaos into a green, peaceful haven.
After a walk in the lush local park, Beykoz Korusu, we headed to the center, where an old lokanta opens onto a main square. “Kök Kardeşler Lokantası – Kuruluş 1935” (“Brothers Kök – since 1935”) read the restaurant’s sign. The simple but meaningful words were written in bright yellow decal on the window. Kök Kardeşler’s unpretentious appearance and the fact that it was a family-run business compelled us to stop inside and grab a quick lunch on what was an unusually cold spring day.
“Hoş geldiniz,” Hamit, one of the four Kök (the name means “roots” in Turkish) siblings who have been managing this little diner, said as we entered, showing an old-fashioned politeness that we now rarely see when eating at restaurants in more popular parts of town. Sitting down, we realized the varied nature of the restaurant’s customers: from workers in dusty overalls to businessmen in suits and groups of shopkeepers taking their lunch break. Everyone seemed equally at ease, as Hamit roamed around greeting them table-by-table.
“Buyurun, we have haşlama today,” we were informed by Ömer, the man behind a counter displaying some very enticing, steaming-hot food. “We also have pilav or mercimek çorbası, and then sautéed veggies with minced meat, stewed chickpeas….” he continued. We were undecided, as every single dish looked delicious and, most importantly, freshly made. We finally chose haşlama – a salubrious stew made with lamb, potatoes and carrots cooked in a meaty broth – and mercimek çorbasi, the classic lentil soup that opens most meals here in Turkey. “We don’t use any ready-made preparations, we make everything from scratch: you’ll get it from the flavor!” Ömer told us. In fact, the lamb in the haşlama melted in our mouths, and the lentil soup’s almost lemony color, along with its creamy consistency, proved that this stuff really was homemade. As soon as we tasted it, we had no doubt: Here was an upgraded and improved version of the soup we cook at home – made with good ingredients and no bouillon cubes.
We were starting into our lunch when Hamit came over and sat with us, facing the lively square. He was curious – foreigners don’t often come to Beykoz – and very eager to tell us the story of his family and this lokanta. “This shop used to be a dairy store, selling cheese and yogurt,” he said. His family is originally from Albania, but his parents met in Istanbul and settled down here in Beykoz, where Albanian immigrants used to live and sell their dairy products. “When my dad passed, me and my brothers took this place and turned it into what it is today. Nowadays, our sister takes care of our ill brother, but I keep on coming to the lokanta every day, with the same energy!”
We were almost finished with our soup when a waiter came over, handing us a plate of hot french fries. “I saw you were eyeing them with a dreamy look before, so I thought I’d bring you some,” he said. Our heart melted while we tasted the same exact flavor of our childhood: These were made with real fresh potatoes, not packaged frozen ones. In this sort of Proustian moment, we thought of the lunches at our grandma’s, and the potatoes she used to cut one by one in little pyramidal pieces before frying them for us.
Far from the fancy areas and from the chaos of the city, Kok Kardesler Lokantasi is the soul of a neighborhood with a history of immigrants, workers, and – mostly – friends.
After lunch, Hamit offered us çay, leading the way to a room upstairs. This used to be where the family would get together and share some quality time – its old-fashioned furniture and decorations helped us picture them, sitting all together on the Ottoman-style sofas. From above, we watched the square, where old men looked out at the water, kids fed the pigeons, ladies chatted under the trees and a brand-new red motorcycle sat parked in the middle of the yard. This mix of generations, with the ancient On Çesmeler, one of the area’s many water fountains, in the background, prompted us to ask about Beykoz and its history.
“For ages, Beykoz has been called the green lung of Istanbul, but mostly it has been known as the city’s main source of water,” Hamit answered. “Wherever you go, it’s full of çesme [fountains] and, here, we have On Çesmeler, built in 1746 under the Sultan Süleyman.” Hamit showed us the monument through the store’s window. “In more recent times, Beykoz had become a very lively neighborhood, thanks to the industries bringing a lot of workers here.” We noticed a slight nostalgic inflection in his voice, and his eyes looked far away. In fact, hearing him mention the factories, we thought of Kundura Fabrikasi, an ex-shoe factory in the neighborhood that was closed in 1999 after over 150 years of activity and now serves as a movie set as well as an open-air cinema.
“Ah, when Kundura was still working, people were flocking to our lokanta at lunch time. The food was over by 3 pm. Imagine how busy we were, and how much energy was this industry giving to the whole village, and to its economy,” Hamit continued. “It’s such a pity, but Beykoz lost a lot of life after Kundura was shut down and Paşabahçe [a housewares brand, whose factory used to be close by] moved its plants to Lüleburgaz and Mersin.” In fact, during our stroll in the alleys leading up to the park we had noticed quite a lot of old folks, seemingly enjoying their retirement, playing cards and backgammon. But there were also just as many teenagers hanging around on their mopeds. “People are jobless, especially the youth,” Hamit said, “and this is sad because many turn to drugs and other bad businesses, since they have nothing to do and nothing to lose.”
We were so captivated by his stories that we lost track of time and almost missed our ferry back. We felt sad to leave Beykoz, a place where time really seems to have stopped, where people still know each other by name and where food still tastes like real food. “We love it here, and we would never leave the neighborhood, nor the family business,” Hamit said, proud of the work his dad did to leave them this place and the effort he and his siblings have been putting into keeping his legacy alive.
“Arrivederci!” Hamit waved, recalling some Italian word he’d heard on TV. “You are always welcome, you are like family now.” It’s an expression we had often heard in Turkey, but in this case we felt like he really meant it.