With December about to lift its wintry head and amble into Istanbul on the heels of a rainy November, there’s no cure for chilly weather and pandemic brain quite like the classic, cozy offerings at any beloved esnaf lokantası (tradesman’s restaurant). From sautéed beef over roasted eggplant purée to white beans in tomato sauce to moussaka and stuffed peppers, there’s a reason the most established of these establishments have a steady stream of loyal customers: reliably good food at a reliably good price.
The esnaf lokantası is the bread and butter of Turkish dining, and any worthy Istanbullu will know their neighborhood’s favorite haunt. The problem with Beşiktaş, a formerly working-class district that has become a hub for Istanbul’s student life, is that scores of longstanding eateries have been shuttered, stricken by the plague of overly branded coffee shops, pastel-printed dessert chains and ever-rising costs. The high turnover for most restaurants, old and new, if they aren’t sufficiently trendy (or monied) has made locating and holding on to the kinds of esnaf lokantası that are beloved in other neighborhoods an increasingly difficult task.
In 2013, before a Cuba-themed café and a rotation of burger bars had become fixtures on a small stretch of the neighborhood’s Ihlamurdere Caddesi, we would regularly walk past a garishly enticing display of stuffed grape leaves. Smack-dab on the sidewalk in front of an unassuming, basement-level shop named Elde Börek, a tray of yaprak sarma, fanned out around wedges of lemon like synchronized swimmers, would rotate on a mechanical carousel inside a glass case. After a year or so of passing by the sidewalk sarma, we finally stepped in upon noticing that inside, behind the main counter, salads and main courses had started appearing next to the baked goods. Seemingly overnight, the sarma and pie shop had become a place to lunch.
Elde Börek got its start in 2010, when Aybil Karamizrak and her younger brother Ömer Karamizrak started selling yaprak sarma, baklava and börek (a savory pastry prepared with phyllo) made by their mother, Zeynep, in her home kitchen in Maltepe, a district on the city’s Asian side that’s 30 kilometers away from Beşiktaş. Like many a Turkish teyze (auntie), the Karamizrak matriarch used to frequently lavish guests with her cooking at the family’s former home in Ağrı, a city in eastern Turkey near the border with Iran. “She made incredible food and everyone loved coming over to eat,” Aybil says. “Oh my, her rice, her mantı [small dumplings], dolma [stuffed vegetables], the börek in particular…”
When Zeynep hanım, now 70, injured her wrist some six years ago, the delicate work of rolling out dough and stuffing grape leaves became a much more difficult task. So she started making less intensive hot dishes for her kids to take back to Beşiktaş, and Aybil began preparing mezes. “We realized, there are lots of workers in Beşiktaş, people who wanted home-style food at a good esnaf lokantası,” says Aybil, thinking back to that time.
Looking for their restaurant years later on a recent return to Beşiktaş, we got a sinking feeling that the café curse had struck again as our eyes rested on the waffle stand and clothes shop now operating in the spot where Elde Börek used to be. Dejected, we turned to walk away, and spotted a lovely teal storefront across the street, on which Elde Börek was emblazoned in a classy serif font.
Turns out, an İskender kebab restaurant across the street from the original location had shut down in 2015, and the Karamizraks were quick to make an arrangement with the neighbors to secure the lease to the building. Walking in to the restaurant’s new digs, we were struck by the sizable and elegant space – a far cry from the basement operation we had formerly frequented. But we quickly recognized the markings of any good esnaf lokantası: a glass counter, waiting for the gentle tap of a diner’s pointer finger as they punctuate their order from the steam tables below.
“Turkish food doesn’t really have much innovation to it, but people want something different – and yet familiar.”
At Elde Börek, however, the finger hesitates at unfamiliar offerings. In spring, it is crimson strawberries dotting a bed of spinach with sour plums and a sheen of vinaigrette. Summer substitutes the parsley and onion in a classic shepherd’s salad for purslane and peach, and combines fresh okra with sour cherries. By fall, fresh mint and slivered almonds cover a pan of wine-dark beets. The root vegetables that are sprinkled into soups and stews at other home-style spots across the city – sunchokes and turnips and celery root – have instead been rubbed with herbs, roasted and then folded in with other fruits and greens and grains, or nestled into a tray of thick yogurt. Pomegranate seeds are just one of many garnishes, but they take center stage across a range of cold starters and desserts.
“We try to take traditional meals and mezes and add a twist,” Aybil, a mechanical engineer turned chef and restaurant owner, explains. “We wanted something that speaks to the traditions we have as Turks, and esnaf lokantaları are doing something great. We weren’t trying to change that model.” She points to the glass counter. “Turkish food doesn’t really have much innovation to it, but people want something different – and yet familiar.” In the years since Elde Börek first opened, they’ve reached a point where they provide just that.
Elde Börek has worked to cater to Beşiktaş’s changing crowd, but it’s something Aybil and her family don’t find too difficult given their own preference for serving food that is “always fresh and seasonal,” she assures. “It’s not just workers looking to grab lunch anymore. You’ve got vegans, vegetarians, healthy eaters, and they see what we are doing and recognize it for what it is: quality.” To keep up that level of quality, the family-owned restaurant has been sourcing its goods from the same independent businesses since it opened 10 years ago, including butter from Erzurum in eastern Turkey and olive oil straight from the press in Ayvalık, on the Aegean coast. “We don’t want anything processed or full of hormones and preservatives in our food,” Aybil says. “We want people to eat the things that make their bodies happy.”
With an industrial kitchen downstairs, the Karamizraks no longer need to schlep food from Maltepe. Aybil and her mom arrive at the restaurant early in the morning to prep and start cooking for their lunch and dinner service. “We don’t even consult on the menu, just do what we feel. Then, when we’re done, we look for what’s missing between the two of us,” she says. “We make what we think we need for the day and try to sell it all. We never sell food from the day before, and we’re always striving for different tastes and flavors.”
Pre-pandemic, Elde Börek would have a line out the door at lunchtime, with diners sharing tables with strangers and leaving quickly to free up space. “We were frankly too busy to even think about delivering,” Aybil says. After a brief hiatus in spring due to mandated shutdowns, Elde Börek has been open and operating under Covid-19 safety guidelines. They are now offering delivery services; when dining-in is an option, customers are required to keep social distancing in mind and wear masks until seated.
“We took a risk, moving here,” Aybil says with a small shake of the head, still a bit bewildered at the gamble the family took to first open their basement store in Beşiktaş and then expand a few years later. But her smile, as well as the restaurant’s army of loyal local fans, are proof that it paid off. “Mom always knew and had faith. She believed in the power of our hands.”
Editor’s note: Due to new Covid-19 restrictions, Elde Börek will be offering delivery service only until further notice. You can find their daily menu on their Instagram account.