In the historic Beyoglu district of Istanbul, the dark, raucous drinking houses called meyhane thrive, as they have since the nights of the Ottoman Empire. The meze, or small plates, they serve—eggplant salads, stuffed grape leaves—haven’t changed, either. Beyoglu locals, who are famous for their conservative palates, might scream if they found an extra red-pepper flake in their walnut-sauced chicken.
Yet in and beyond Beyoglu, talented young Turkish chefs are reinventing meyhane and their meze. Trained in places like New York, they understand both the Slow Food ethos and the technical innovation of Spain. And they acknowledge the influence of their well-traveled clients, who don’t want to eat the same yogurt dip every day. These chefs are globally minded, yet savvy enough to keep bland culinary globalization at bay. Much like Spain’s next-wave tapas bars and Italy’s sleek enotecas, Istanbul’s modern meyhane are all about creative design and forward-thinking dishes that still taste unmistakably Istanbullu. The Byzantine silhouette of the Hagia Sophia never changes; other things, such as stuffed grape leaves, do.
The Late-Night Scene
Cavit Saatci is one of Beyoglu’s most welcoming hosts: He’s the city’s current king of meyhane. (He learned hospitality, and perfect English, tending bar on Carnival cruise ships.) At his bohemian restaurant, he enhances meze, such as chickpea pâté and every iteration of eggplant, by sourcing incredible ingredients and obsessing over the details. That’s clear from his legendary, petal-thin slices of lamb liver flash-fried—very quickly, he insists—and sprinkled with chiles. Saatci is such a generous host, he keeps the restaurant open past midnight in case a theater troupe shows up post-performance. Asmalimescit Caddesi 16/D, Beyoglu; 011-90-212-292-4950.
A Star Chef’s Disciple
“Customers always ask for my mücver recipe,” says Didem Senol of her herb-packed zucchini fritters. So she scrawled the recipe on a mirror decorating one of Lokanta Maya’s walls. A graduate of Manhattan’s French Culinary Institute and a student of Istanbul’s famous Mehmet Gürs, Senol says she fell for local Turkish ingredients, like sun-baked pekmez (grape molasses), while cooking at her father’s small resort on Turkey’s southern coast. Among her best dishes is a sea bass carpaccio, laced with grapefruit and dill and splashed with fruity olive oil made by her father. Next, Senol is launching a casual locavore place called Gram, serving healthy seasonal dishes. Kemankes Caddesi 35A, Karaköy; lokantamaya.com.
Ferit Sarper began his career studying design in New York City at Parsons The New School for Design. Then, two years ago, he opened Münferit (“one of a kind”), a buzzy, glamorous space where he creatively updates classic flavors. Yes, he offers stuffed grape leaves, but they’re filled with blue cheese and pears instead of rice. His traditional eggplant dish has the surprise of a tomato-water vinaigrette. Sarper’s family plays a big role at Münferit. His father produces the potent, triple-distilled raki—Turkey’s signature anise-flavored spirit—served there. His favorite aunt provided the recipe for the sausage-shaped lamb meatballs he serves with plush scrambled eggs. And his wife, Seyhan Özdemir (of Turkey’s hippest interior design firm, Autoban), created the restaurant’s rich look, with a stamped-tin ceiling and chocolate-hued ceramic tiles. Yeni Carsi Caddesi 19; munferit.com; 011-90-212-252-5067.
Destination by the Docks
The Karaköy docks neighborhood by the Galata Bridge is Istanbul’s up-and-coming restaurant zone. And Karaköy Lokantasi, from the husband-and-wife team Oral Kurt and Aylin Okutan, is its top destination. The space resembles an Oriental brasserie: a wrought-iron staircase, turquoise tiles inspired by the Topkapi Palace harem. Sleek glass cases display a seasonally changing selection of three dozen meze, including the wildly popular baby artichokes in olive oil with a little ginger. “Customers would be heartbroken if they came off the menu,” says Okutan. Kemankes Caddesi 37A, Karaköy; karakoylokantasi.com.
Semsa Denizsel is known as the Alice Waters of Turkey for championing farm-to-table cuisine long before anyone in Istanbul had ever heard of the concept. At her upstairs restaurant, Kantin, the London-educated former food stylist is a tireless innovator. Downstairs, at the elegant takeout shop Kantin Dükkan, customers can also buy her spectacular whole-wheat flatbreads; she recently began making Turkish heirloom-wheat dough with toppings like spiced ground lamb with a runny organic egg. Akkavak Sokagi 30, Nisantasi; kantin.biz; 011-90-212-219-3114.
Cibalikapi Balikcisi Halic
This snug, three-story meyhane belongs to Behzat Sahin, a former TV-news journalist with a passion for food history. After uncovering a rare 1748 manuscript with handwritten recipes at the Turkish Parliament library, he created a stunning “Ottoman ceviche”: sea bass marinated with vinegar, honey, pine nuts, bay leaf, bergamot and 10 spices. The best meze here are seafood-centric, as in the pearlescent, dime-size scallops from the Dardanelles Strait that are cooked in the shell, along with white wine and dill fronds. Kadir Has Caddesi 5, Cibali; cibalikapibalikcisi.com; 011-90-212-533-2846.