Geoffrey Ballinger, a writer for Culinary Backstreets and a self-taught student of regional Turkish cuisine and cooking methods, maps out the best restaurants to try in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district.
Turkish cuisine, influenced by its Ottoman past and its geographical neighbours, is characterised by an amalgamation of flavours that include the fresh tastes of the Mediterranean and the soulful and spicy hints of Persian cuisine. Turkish food expert Geoffrey Ballinger speaks to Culture Trip about the top-rated dining experiences on the streets of Taksim in the trendy Beyoğlu district of Istanbul.
Pide is boat-shaped Turkish pizza from the Black Sea (Karadeniz) region of Turkey. Taste the punchy Middle Eastern flavours of this popular dish at Çınar Karadeniz Pide Salonu, a small pizzeria that serves a variety of pide, including a mushroom version that oozes kaşar cheese (akin to mozzarella). Pair your meal with some ayran (a cooling yoghurt drink) that’s often drunk with pide to help cleanse the palate after the spices. Apart from the food, it’s the service here that keeps Ballinger coming back for more. “Turks love to feed you,” he says. “It’s a very Turkish quality to take care of you like a member of the family.”
This hole-in-the-wall restaurant serves up excellent Georgian food, including dumplings, cheesy bread and aubergine rolls with pomegranate. You can pair your food with something from their list of Georgian wines. “Georgian wine is very distinctive,” says Ballinger, “with wineries using age-old methods of winemaking to preserve their cultural heritage. The wine is aged in ceramic containers, giving it a very different taste from the French, Italian or Spanish wine that dominates the market.”
Tucked away on a side street near the Sishane metro and the famous Rainbow Stairs, Community Kitchen is highly recommended for vegetarians and vegans curious to discover Turkish classics. Lahmacun, pide, kebap and kofte (meat-based Turkish specialities) have all been reimagined here, along with locally produced tofu and seitan. “Don’t miss the seitan-stuffed grape leaves with lemon juice,” says Ballinger. “Lemon is added to almost every dish to give it that sourness that is such a large part of Turkey’s cuisine.” Expect to find friendly patrons eager to engage you in conversation, and the occasional litter of kittens napping on a cushion nearby. “In Islam, cats are celebrated. They are considered one of the cleanest animals, so it’s no surprise that they are welcomed in the culture and are always looked after,” says Ballinger.
Close to Galata Tower, this lokanta (cafeteria) is a student favourite due to its fast service and affordable prices. “Lokantas originated during Ottoman times, and it’s a beautiful tradition of a shared dining experience,” says Ballinger. The menu changes daily and is seasonally influenced. In colder weather, the comforting soups such as roasted tomato and mercimek (red lentil) will warm your insides; vegetarians and vegans can choose from an abundance of options, such as courgette fritters and bulgur lentil balls. The cafeteria is low-key and cosy; visitors eat at communal tables and solo diners can easily strike up a conversation with a fellow diner. The cafeteria-style service makes it a speedy option for visitors with plenty on their to-do lists, and it is a great way to experience Turkish homestyle cooking. As Ballinger says, “Turks will always recommend their mother’s cooking before they recommend a restaurant.”
An award-winning restaurant located right across the historic Pera Palace Hotel, Meze by Lemon Tree has a seasonal menu that features different vegetarian and seafood appetisers depending on when you go. Ballinger recommends picking a dish with nar eksisi ( Turkish pomegranate molasses) from their main menu, as it’s one of Turkey’s staple ingredients. The fresh seafood here is highly regarded, and Ballinger recommends ordering the fixed menu to share for two, which includes six mezes. “Pudding was very famous during Ottoman times,” he says, “so do as the Ottomans, and have the hazelnut pudding topped with tahini and mulberry molasses for dessert.”
“The smaller, more traditional Turkish restaurants all specialise in a particular dish, or a few dishes,” says Ballinger. “As a whole, Turkish cuisine is seasonal and regional.” Fıccın Restoran exemplifies this with a seasonal menu focussed on Circassian dishes. Vegetables cooked in olive oil are a staple here during the summer. Things to try on their menu include zeytinyağlı taze fasulye (green beans in olive oil), firin mucver (an oven-baked courgette patty with yoghurt) and firinda kasarli mantarli enginar (stuffed artichoke with cheesy mushrooms).
One of the pricier options on this list, Aheste is an elegant meze restaurant near the Pera Museum. The menu is a modern twist on Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine, with dishes like caramelised roasted aubergines, cretan mash (broad beans) with charred peppers and blueberries and smoked fish pâté. Large groups often opt for the tasting menu. Ask for local wine recommendations from the knowledgeable staff or select a craft mocktail such as the güllaç, (a dessert a little like baklava, soaked in rose water) inspired by the famous Ottoman dessert of the same name. Ballinger says, “Now is the time to try Turkish wine. Heritage grapes that are grown only in Turkey are being celebrated and reintroduced to the market.” If you’re lucky, you’ll visit on a night with live jazz music, which perfectly complements this beautiful space.
Housed in a building built in the 1800s, this cosy restaurant has operated on Sofyah Street for the last 15 years. Their menu features a selection of 25 hot and cold mezes, including grilled octopus in foil and chard stuffed with meat and rice. They also have a fairly extensive list of raki – Turkey’s national alcohol – on the menu. Try a bottle of Yeni Raki to gain a new perspective on the epic ballads that are often said to be inspired by this distinctive anise-flavoured alcohol. According to Ballinger, “Raki is not something that you drink by yourself. You enjoy it in the company of others, accompanied by copious amounts of meze.” Try the Çanakkale cheese halva (a flour-based dessert), an extremely sweet post-dinner treat. “It’s incredibly rich because of all the butter used, and tastes salty and sweet at the same time,” says Ballinger.