Marlen Bar in Beyoğlu - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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The area around Mis (meaning “Pleasant-Smelling”), Kurabiye (“Cookie”) and Süslü Saksı (“Fancy Flowerpot”) Streets is as eclectic and appealing as these monikers would suggest, at least as far as we’re concerned. This corner in the backstreets of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district is home to a trifecta of our favorite local haunts: Müşterek, its sister meyhane, Meclis, and a bar on the floor above, called Marlen.

It’s also an area that has maintained the gritty yet lively character of the city’s longtime entertainment hub in spite of profound changes that have threatened to strip it of that title. Many people have abandoned Beyoğlu (also commonly called Taksim due to the main square across the entrance from the bustling pedestrian Istiklal Avenue), opting for the districts of Kadıköy and Beşiktaş, both of which have witnessed a massive increase in the number of new bars, cafés and restaurants, a trend that has managed to continue full speed ahead in spite of the country’s worsening economic crisis.

Beyoğlu and especially Istiklal Avenue have faced a wave of challenges, setbacks and tragedies over the past decade, in addition to their drastic transformation from the city’s cultural heart and entertainment hotspot to a banal stretch of shopping malls, chain stores and faux-authentic shops selling baklava and other overpriced sweets that are marketed to tourists. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 often veered off İstiklal Avenue into the backstreets, where outdoor diners were suddenly greeted with an unexpected serving of tear gas as riot police chased protestors. This cat and mouse game went on for weeks, severely damaging the vitality of nightlife in the area as many people opted not to return.

In 2016, Turkey and Istanbul in particular sustained a dark, gruesome year punctuated by numerous deadly terror attacks and the failed July 15th military coup. A suicide bombing occurred on Istiklal on a Saturday morning in March, killing four. Six and a half years later, Istiklal was hit with another exploding bomb, claiming the lives of six people. The blast was  just a stone’s throw away from Müşterek, prompting dozens of worried regulars to call the crew and ask if everyone was OK. Thankfully, they were.

In the midst of these sweeping changes, this particular corner of Beyoğlu has resisted. Some of the best bars, grill houses and meyhanes in the city are here, and their customers are loyal. Müşterek (“Collective”) has long been our favorite meyhane, famous for its wonderful meze, scrumptious hot appetizers, affordable prices, cozy ambiance and impeccably warm service. Across and around the corner are some of our favorite bars (Muaf, Şiirci) and grill houses (Zübeyir, Kenan) and Köfteci Hüseyin, one of the city’s best grilled meatball joints.

In 2019, Cihan, Emre and İnan from Müşterek were busy opening their sister meyhane Meclis (“Parliament”), and were interested in establishing a bar in the space upstairs. They approached 30-year-old Metincan Alkan – who at that time was managing a rowdy bar in the same building as Müşterek – to ask if he would be interested in running it. Metincan was up for the task, and they set about renovating the fifth-floor spot, in the process creating a welcoming dive bar with elegant flourishes. The lights are dim, there are a few vintage lamps that keep things from being pitch black, and there is a comfortable and charming leather couch in the corner. Adjacent to the small bar is a terrace that is perfect on a warm summer evening or a cold winter night when the retractable roof is closed. “We built it from scratch,” Metincan told us, adding that the space was essentially an empty apartment building when they first acquired it.

The initial concept he had in mind was for a more posh, modern and cocktail-oriented vibe, which would have been novel for the immediate area, but Marlen never ended up going in that direction, in part because just a few months later the Covid-19 pandemic hit Turkey, and nightlife froze to a halt. Establishments with bar licenses, such as Müşterek, ended up closed for nearly a year and a half. Meclis and Marlen were luckier, as they technically hold different licenses as restaurants that serve alcohol. The latter two were able to open for certain stretches during that period, though they weren’t making any money and were barely staying on their feet.

“Our landlord is a good person and didn’t ask for rent; that was our biggest advantage,” Metincan said. During those first 16 months of the pandemic, we were terrified of the possibility of Müşterek having to close down, but the mercy of the landlord prevented this from happening, and the crew focused their efforts on opening a meze shop with the same name and recipes in the neighborhood of Kurtuluş, after realizing that the majority of the meyhane’s regulars lived there.

Meanwhile, Metincan and company were just scraping by, and the regulations kept shifting in terms of if and how long places could stay open, and how late they could play music. He considers Marlen’s true opening to be July of 2021, when the pandemic restrictions were finally removed. It was an excessively jubilant time for Beyoğlu; bars were packed, streets were full and it was impossible to find a taxi on the weekends.

That still leaves the problem of Turkey’s economic crisis, where purchasing power has plunged amid three-digit inflation and the severely-weakened Turkish lira.

“Things still aren’t great. Our places are in the cheapest zone of Taksim, so we can’t raise prices very high. We have business but our profit margin is low,” Metincan said. A pint of draft beer at Marlen costs 40 TL ($2.15), common for the area (meanwhile, that figure often doubles in more upmarket sections of the city). “When people come here, they feel like they are in a different kind of bar. There hasn’t been anyone who has complained. They like the music, the cocktails and the warm atmosphere and they leave happy.”

The bar boasts a brief yet solid menu, featuring tasty hand-cut fries, succulent grilled chicken on wooden skewers, and the Marlen Burger, loaded with delectable strips of beef bacon, cheddar cheese and juicy caramelized onions. We never leave hungry, nor can we make it out the door without the generous Metincan pouring us a shot of Jameson on the house.

Though Metincan doesn’t dive too far into politics during our conversation, he makes it clear that he and the Marlen crew are anti-fascist. The bar’s name is inspired by the late, iconic German actress Marlene Dietrich, renowned for her anti-Nazi activism. Müşterek and Meclis are known for being leftist hangouts, though the crowd is composed of a diverse mix of ages and occupations. Marlen attracts a somewhat younger crowd, perhaps owing to the bombastic DJ sets that turn the place into a packed dance floor on the weekends.

Signs have pointed to a resurgence in Beyoğlu nightlife. A venue called Blind opened in the space forlornly left empty for years by the iconic Babylon club after it moved to the Bomontiada complex in the Bomonti neighborhood of Şişli. It preserves the feel and program of its predecessor. Around the corner is Bordel, a tiny nook which serves delicious street food alongside beer and shots.

“They always say ‘Taksim is finished, Taksim is finished!’ Then those hanging out in Beşiktaş or Kadıköy come back here say ‘Ah, man – Taksim is actually great.’ I get really irritated with those people. Taksim is finished because you stopped coming here, you moved to Kadıköy. If this place is on the rise once again, as the few people left here, those who work here and continue to hang out here, we are among those responsible for that,” Metincan said.

He did acknowledge that Sunday’s bomb attack will be bad news for Beyoğlu and for business. And there are troubling signs that this particular corridor of Beyoğlu is being affected by the crass commercialization of Istiklal. In the building next door to Marlen, a garish, overly-bright breakfast cereal café just opened up, with a giant inflatable cartoon figure outside, waving to customers.

On a crisp Tuesday night two days after the explosion, we headed toward Süslü Saksı Street and took the elevator up the fifth floor to Marlen. Fırat was behind the bar and Mahmut was running the floor. There were maybe four people sitting on the terrace. We took a seat at the bar, ordered a draft pint of Tuborg and a burger and began chatting with the crew and another regular. It was pretty quiet, even for a Tuesday night. Out on the street, things were noticeably slow and dismal. We couldn’t help but leave with a bitter, sullen taste in our mouths, but we also departed with the reassurance that we would be back soon, the crowds would be livelier, and that Marlen, Müşterek and Meclis have weathered many storms and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Neither will we.

Published on November 22, 2022

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