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If you know where to look, the cobbled streets of Istanbul have hidden culinary delights at every turn. From street-side vendors serving world-famous kebab wraps to contemporary spins on Turkish dishes at innovative new restaurants, the city has mouthwatering food options at every corner.
Modern-day Turkish cuisine is a nod to the flavours of the Ottoman Empire: an amalgamation of tastes from the Middle East to the Balkans. Ranging from street food to high-end dining experiences, Istanbul offers cuisine to suit all kinds of palates.
Also in Asmalimescit, which has no shortage of good restaurants, Aheste (which means ‘without hurrying’), serves traditional mezes with a twist. A modern take on the Turkish meyhane (tavern), Aheste is a real lover of slow food and meze-style dishes made from organic ingredients. Vegetarians and pescatarians can choose from a variety of vegetable-only options on the menu, including artichoke confit and caramelised roast aubergine. If you’re unsure of what to try, go for the three-course tasting menu. Cosy seating, dim lighting, good acoustics and a great playlist make it the perfect place for dinner and conversation.
A favourite among travellers, Asitane Restaurant has dedicated its kitchen to reviving the forgotten cuisine of the Ottoman Palace. The restaurant is set in an enchanting location in Edirnekapı, lying in the shadow of the mesmerising Chora Church. The restaurant uses traditional cooking methods and prides itself on the research that has been undertaken to rediscover more than 200 lost recipes; some of the methods used are over 500 years old. The seasonal menu items are accompanied by the date of the invention of the dish, such as the savoury meat patties (1764). A fascinating journey through Turkish gastronomy, Asitane Restaurant is a must for those interested in food history.
After its humble beginnings as a simple simit (sesame-crusted bread) shop in the 1800s in Istanbul’s Balat neighbourhood, Beyaz Fırın became a wartime bakery during World War I that survived by selling almond cookies as postwar rations. It then expanded into a bakery-café, and is today one of the most popular dessert and breakfast spots in the city, spread across eight locations, and serving both sweet and savoury items. Enjoy an excellent selection of both Turkish and international breakfast and brunch options at the Etiler Fırın and Brasserie location. The shop tries to use as many locally sourced products as possible and offers a variety of options, including gluten-free.
For modern and innovative Mediterranean cuisine and a fine-dining experience in Istanbul, Nicole is the restaurant to visit. Helmed by a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, this rooftop restaurant offers one of two menus to choose from, along with a carefully selected list of domestic and international wines, including bottles from the Anatolia and Aegean regions. Try the anchovy tartare, octopus in lentils, and fennel and tangerine sorbet, while enjoying sprawling views of the Old Town and the Princes’ Islands. Originally a Franciscan monastery until the early 20th century, Nicole is now one of the chicest places to dine in the city. It is located in the happening Tomtom neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, above Tomtom Suites hotel, and you can make reservations online.
This no-frills canteen-style restaurant offers homestyle Turkish food at very affordable prices. Serving lunch and dinner, this lokanta (restaurant) in the main Beşiktaş market is the place to quickly fuel up with a warm meal and continue your exploration. Pick up a tray and get in line with the rest of the hungry patrons, who sometimes queue outside for this food. You can start with a soup before heading down to fill your plate up with rice, bulgur and a main, including grilled chicken, stuffed vegetables and kofta with potatoes. Balkan Lokantası uses only the freshest ingredients, so the menu varies.
Opened in 2005, Mikla is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants Istanbul has to offer. The restaurant is on the roof of The Marmara Pera hotel. It offers beautiful views of the city and its most treasured buildings, including the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace. Chef and owner Mehmet Gürs brings his Turkish-Scandinavian background to the fore with this tantalising menu. Dishes served include grilled prawns with vegetable firik, chickpea flour and courgette flowers. The restaurant also recently opened the New Anatolian Kitchen, transforming and updating traditional dishes through both contemporary and ancient gastronomic techniques.
Some of Istanbul’s best luxury dining experiences are set on high rooftops, allowing visitors to revel in the city’s inspiring views and warm weather. Leb-i Derya is thought to be one of the leaders of this trend and, although it is now rivalled by many competitors, it still ranks among the the best. The menu offers a range of cuisines, including Turkish delicacies such as lamb shish with plums, pomegranate molasses, fresh thyme and spiced rice with pine nuts. There are also delectable pasta dishes on the menu, such as seafood linguine with salmon, and calamari, shrimp and tomato cream sauce with fresh mint.
This café in Cihangir has some of the freshest mantı (dumpling) in the city. This is the place to try the Turkish version of dumplings, often described as a the country’s spin on ravioli, served with yoghurt. This café uses handmade manti dough, rolling it out and then spooning in a variety of fillings. Served in the traditional boiled way as well as fried and baked versions, the mantı is topped with garlic yoghurt, sumac, mint and pepper.
Made famous by Salt Bae, this steakhouse is not to be underestimated just because it’s a meme now. The original café in Istanbul’s posh Etiler district still sees hordes of guests outside waiting to be seated. Visit to see the moustachioed servers and theatrics when serving food or just to try some of the best melt-in-your-mouth meat in the city.
A seafood restaurant in Sultanahmet, Giritli serves Mediterranean-style seafood inspired by the owner’s Cretan grandfather. Giritli offers a fixed-price four-course meal with excellent hot and cold starters, followed by a fish entrée and dessert. Pair your simply seasoned grilled fish with a delicious starter and some raki, and enjoy your meal in the outdoor seating area.
The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain once said that this hole-in-the-wall venue had the best kebabs and dürüms (wraps) in all of Istanbul, propelling the well-loved spot to even greater heights. Kebabs hot off the skewers, wrapped in slightly charred flatbread with sumac (a tangy spice) and herb-sprinkled onions, tomatoes and green peppers are the speciality here. Try the signature lamb and beef wrap or one of the other options, which include liver and chicken wraps. Enjoy a single or double portion, depending on how hungry you are, on the chairs outside this little shop. Dürümzade is open late, so head here if you’re craving an evening snack.
Just off İstiklal Avenue, Iranian eatery Reyhun has some of the best Persian cuisine in Istanbul. The restaurant’s pursuit of authenticity is seen in its use of ingredients flown in from Iran, such as saffron and basmati rice. Try the saffron-infused rice or stews with hints of pomegranate. The restaurant has plenty of seating, with the terrace overlooking the St Anthony of Padua Church. This place is a must-try for those visiting Taksim Square and İstiklal Avenue.
With three locations, two in Aksaray and one at Taksim, this Syrian fast-food restaurant is the perfect place for a quick bite. If you want to try something different from the Turkish doner, try the juicy Arab shawarma, one of the restaurant’s most popular items. It also offers the traditional Arab kabsa (rice and meat) dish along with other varieties of Syrian cuisine, which has recently become more popular in the city. The Aksaray restaurants have more seating, while the one at Taksim is smaller, so you may have to wait to be seated.
Located in another multicultural district of Istanbul, Zeytinburnu, Özbek Sofrası serves Uzbek and Afghan food. From dumplings topped with minced meat to the traditional plov (a rice and meat dish), the food here has its own distinct flavour. You can even buy piping hot naans, which is rare in this city.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Andrew Kingsford-Smith.