The holy month of Ramadan has arrived, and along with it Istanbul has been blessed with beautiful spring weather. Normally, people throughout the city would be gathering in groups large and small in the evening to enjoy their fast-breaking iftar, but these days are anything but normal.
Surging Covid-19 figures, which recently eclipsed 60,000 a day in Turkey, have resulted in tightened measures geared toward curbing the pandemic (in fact, it was announced yesterday that the country will be under a total lockdown from April 29 until May 17). These have included the closure of restaurants and cafés for dining service and stricter curfews, which begin at 7 p.m. during the week. With iftar time in Istanbul commencing around a quarter to 8, those fasting are coming with loaves of Ramazan pidesi fresh and hot out of the oven, only for the bread to cool down by the time the meal starts.
The alarming spike in new cases has nevertheless failed to deter Istanbul residents from going outside before the curfew starts. The closure of venues coupled with the nice weather has resulted in major crowds on the streets and in public places, such as Maçka Park, the largest and most popular green space in the center of the European side of Istanbul.
A recent visit to Maçka would have one believe that not only is it not Ramadan, but that there is no pandemic and Turkey isn’t in the midst of a deep economic recession and escalating political turmoil. It was filled with people in their 20s and 30s having picnics, sipping beers, walking their dogs, laughing and talking and listening to music – one could easily be at a park in Berlin. The ebullient atmosphere is both comforting and slightly alarming due to the crowds, but we found ourselves unable to resist the pull of the park on a nice spring afternoon. A good thing, too, as the new lockdown will surely put an end to these outdoor gatherings.
The past year has been particularly difficult for the country’s restaurants, bars and cafés, as long periods without dining service has resulted in plummeting revenues, requiring establishments to rely on takeaway and delivery service to stay on their feet. While restaurants holding a license to serve alcohol were open during the summer and briefly this year, bars, nightclubs and venues have been shut down since the pandemic reached Turkey, leaving several million people without work for more than a year. When the dust settles, we fear that many of Istanbul’s cherished establishments will not be able to reopen their doors.
During Ramadan, restaurants in Istanbul often close down for renovations, taking advantage of a lull in business to spruce up their facilities after a busy year. This time around, it appears that many places do not have this luxury. In the bustling center of the conservative district of Ümraniye, a row of döner joints and burger restaurants remained open, hoping to capitalize on to-go orders and delivery, even in an area where the majority of residents are most likely fasting.
Nearby the ferry terminal in the neighboring district of Üsküdar, three büfes (stands selling burgers, hot dogs and other fast food) remained as busy as ever, as eating at the counter and on adjacent benches was seemingly tolerated. We ordered a plain plate of nohutlu pilav (buttery rice with chickpeas) and a plastic cup of tangy refreshing ayran served on tap. The man behind the counter excitedly pointed out that the rice would be better dusted with black pepper, topped with the nuclear-red sauce used to simmer hot dogs and a small pile of slightly crispy, hand-cut French fries, and we obliged. It was a delicious, if far from wholesome midday snack.
The next day, we visited one of our favorite restaurants, Osmanbey’s Mahir Lokantası, for a to-go order of succulent, comforting tavuk çorbası (chicken soup with shards of carrot in a subtle, creamy broth) and haşlama içli köfte (boiled pockets of bulgur wheat with a deeply flavorful filling of spiced, minced beef). We also came to chat with our friend Mahir Nazlıcan, the affable co-owner and head chef. Mahir bey and his crew were busy cooking package Ramazan meals.
“Takeaway service does not save restaurants, it saves small places like büfes and döner shops but it cannot sustain large restaurants like ours with large staff and high rent,” Nazlıcan said. Fortunately, Nazlıcan owns the space where his restaurant is located and has not had to lay anyone off, something he attributes to “customer capital,” having established a loyal base of diners over the past several years, during which Mahir Lokantası emerged as one of the best eateries in the area.
Sure enough, some businesses have seized the occasion and tried to get in on the booming delivery business, and new restaurants have opened up and thrived during the pandemic with a delivery/to-go model. Meanwhile, other eateries that normally close on Sunday have opted to remain open hoping that the orders will come in.
“Takeaway service does not save restaurants, it saves small places like büfes and döner shops but it cannot sustain large restaurants like ours with large staff and high rent.”
The curfews and restrictions have nevertheless taken a deep bite out of Nazlıcan’s revenue, which has dropped 75-80 percent on days when dine-in service is forbidden. He estimates that around 25 percent of restaurants across the country have closed down for good (a figure backed by recent news reports), at least half a dozen of which are on Halaskargazi Avenue, the busy boulevard where Mahir Lokantası is located. Nazlıcan relayed a depressing anecdote involving a restaurateur coming from the Maslak district trying to sell him a large batch of kuru fasulye (stewed white beans) because they were going out of business.
Nazlıcan estimates that the takeaway Ramadan orders will increase in the second half of the holy month, when people are generally more inclined to have gatherings with friends and relatives (a prediction made before the newly announced total lockdown). He remains upbeat and optimistic in spite of the trying times.
“God willing, we are hoping that everything will improve, get better and turn out alright,” he said.
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