Istanbul is doubtlessly one of the great food cities. An 8000-year-old home to palaces, emperors, civilisations but also kitchens, cooks, and cuisines. It’s the city with a million stories often told around some food and drinks on a table.
It’s difficult to take in a city with such a large hinterland of culture, especially through its diverse landscape of food. Any Turkish person can attest to the internal feeling of protest that rises when a foreign friend decides to spare only a weekend for their Istanbul visit. 'Blasphemous, you won’t have enough time to try the food!' I think to myself every time.
So after a long time of giving tourist friends long lists of places to eat at, what to order and how to enjoy it, I decided to make things easier for visitors and hosts alike. I launched Dig in Istanbul in an attempt to have more people enjoy the city that fed me, with my recommendations as a food writer and as a friend.
Here is a snippet of what is on the website: the five iconic meyhanes of Istanbul that define what a meyhane is.
For someone living in Istanbul, going out means going to a meyhane. It’s where families meet out for a nice dinner, where couples exchange nostalgic glances, where friends reunite after a long time, and where the elderly reminisce about old times.
Similar to pubs in the UK, meyhanes come with their history and visual and behavioural codes. They look a certain way and feel a certain way. Customers expect swift, casual and professional service without the fuss of fine dining. Businesses focus on making customers happy rather than providing a culinary experience. And those who succeed in that as well as have excellent food become iconic.
1. Asmalı Cavit
Asmalı Cavit, or just Cavit, is perhaps the epitome of a meyhane. It sits in a narrow alley in Asmalımescit and stands out from other classic meyhanes with its impeccable mezes and hot appetizers. The tarama is a reference point here. The köfte, while not a meyhane staple, is also a signature.
2. Giritli Restoran
Giritli Restoran is the most elegant meyhane in Istanbul. If one were to believe in societal conceptions of the gender they’d say it is a restaurant with a woman’s touch. The stone patio, the purring cats, the large painted photograph of Crete’s port on the wall, wide and white-clothed tables, and a still air make this place an escape from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring Kumkapı, Old Town and the rest of Cankurtaran. Perfect for a cool summer evening.
3. İsmet Baba
A true regular’s spot. İsmet Baba is one of the few old-timer meyhanes that still hold a special large table for their local clientele which consists of fishermen, workers, and residents. Perfect for winter months when you want to sit inside but have a view of the Bosphorus. Pretty classic meyhane fare here, hard to go wrong.
4. Balat Sahil Restoran
Balat Sahil is perhaps a little bit different from the other meyhanes in its menu, but still encapsulates the perfect feeling of being at a meyhane. The onion dolma and mushroom mezes here are unique. The cold-cooked fish mezes are similarly excellent.
5. İnciraltı Meyhanesi
The jewel of Beylerbeyi. İnciraltı is one of those Narnia-like situations where you are transported to a different time and world when you enter. Its squeaky wooden floors, Turkish classical music bouncing off of the walls decorated with old pictures, and the well-groomed staff with a soft and respectful demeanour reflect an old Istanbul that is not there anymore.