The word Istanbul conjures up so many images/impressions in those lucky enough to have been there, but also those that haven’t. Spreading across the sea to Asia from Europe, the city holds true to the treasures of both sides. The European side is packed with sightseeing and frantic shopping streets, the Asian side is a more local, crammed place filled with tiny shops, markets, tea stalls, restaurants and of course bars.
Whether you live on one side and visit the other, or spend the first few days seeing all the “sights” in Sultanahmet and Beyoglu/Taksim, definitely spare at least 1-2 days (or weeks) to head over to Kadikoy and eat your heart out. The food is simply sublime.
The Turks do the same as every culture, they have their highs and lows, and of course, their comfort foods. Nobody said beans on toast or bangers and mash was a culinary delight but many a chef in England gets hankerings for it now and then. The same goes for every culture. Apart from the fact they seem to love eating plain rice with chickpeas on top, the thing that surprised me the most the first time I visited Turkey was the lack of “sauce or toppings” on the Kebabs. It's generally bread, meat, tomatoes (sometimes onions, sumac, blistered chillis). Thats it. The emphasis is on the quality of the bread and the meat. So don’t come expecting lashings of garlic or chilli sauce on your kebabs because they don’t even have them anywhere. Focus on the meat and the bread and you’ll have a whale of a time.
Places to eat
Ciya Sofrasi / Ciya Kebab
The restaurant that pops up on every top 10 list, and rightly so. Featured in season 3 of Chef’s Table too, this place really is worth heading to for any self-respecting human. I have been eating at this place for the past 6 years whenever i’m in town, and it never disappoints. The last time I visited Chef Musa Dagdeviren personally recommended 4 dishes, it was one of the best meals of my life.
Open the door and directly to your left stands the chef anxiously stirring and serving from an array of bubbling pots and trays lining the glass fronted kitchen. Basically just look and ask or read the menu and ask the waiters.
The Kofte wrapped in Yellow Sour Plums is unbelievable.
On the opposite side of the alley is Ciya Kebab, with one of the most sublime spicy lamb kebab on earth. If you are travelling to Istanbul for the first time you need to go to Ciya Sofrasi (although they do walk over the alley with dishes from both places). However, if you have some time to spend, visit both multiple times!
Yanyali Femi Lokantasi
Quite the mouthful to blurt out to a local whilst asking directions, but 100% worthy of the effort. It sits at the mouth of the market streets that head all the way down to Ciya. This place has apparently been here for eons, and is third generation Greek. The food is insanely delicious, I almost passed out. The lentil soup is sublime, the moussaka is one of the best I have tried in my life, as is their Kofte wrapped in eggplant and served with a delicious, rich, aubergine puree made with cheese, milk and flour. Astonishingly good food, well priced, superb service.
In my opinion the best Lahmacun in Istanbul! Supremely cooked Turkish pizza with the flakiest, crispy base and simple, delicious toppings. Add a good squeeze of fresh lemon first (so you can see if any pips need to be discarded), throw a mound of parsley in the middle, some sumac or chilli, and roll it like a Cuban cigar. A feast for a euro.
Dürümzade had always been the king of kebabs in Istanbul, until this place was thrust into my consciousness. A bartender recommended it so highly that I actually went that very night. The spot is a bit out of the way, but you will not regret the extra few hundred meters. Upon reaching there I quickly noticed how huge it was, and it was absolutely packed to the brim AT MIDNIGHT. I could only get a table outside since it was too cold for locals to sit there. I ordered the Beyran (spicy meat soup) and the Shish Durum. The soup was delicious, but the Shish stole the show. Epic bread, and tender meat inside grilled to perfection with the taste of the coals permeating every bite. Be sure to get a bowl of their yellow chilli peppers which they marinate for 3 months in Grape Vinegar… they truly are some of the best I’ve ever eaten.
(The kebab was so good I ate it without taking a photo first....)
This is a spot to only go to if you really want to experience a very traditional dish done well. They have been open since 1969 and are always full, which is testament to their resolve and meticulous standards. Manti are like small tortellini with meat inside, covered in yogurt and you are encouraged to add the dried mint, chilli and sumac sitting on the table in healthy amounts. This isn’t close to the top of what Turkish food has to offer, but its an insight into a comfort food that is still hugely popular here. I found it tasty, but would probably limit it to the one visit. Been there, done that kinda thing.
With a name reminiscent of a chubby psychopath from way out East, this place has dangerously good food. Locals pile in by the bucketloads to feast on the meats + kebabs, but the real star of the show here is the lentil soup. Widely regarded by many as being the best in town, after sampling it this afternoon i’d be hard pressed to disagree. Superbly comforting, flavour-laden soup served with the quintessential sides of soft Turkish bread, a jar of sumac to sprinkle on, a wedge of lemon to freshen up the soup, and a small glass jar of those potent little yellow chillis. Not much more to say other than it’s right opposite Stereogun, it’s open til 5am and the soup costs a dollar. Whats not to love.
Both the yellow lentil, and the red lentil soups are to die for.
Now we are treading into some über local territory here. A tiny, tiny shawarma place that is usually sold out by 3-4pm, lines of people waiting for their kebabs anxiously watching the chefs slicing, weighing and assembling their sandwiches. You choose between 3 types of bread, then wait. The meat itself is fantastic, its weighed out so nobody gets short changed, the bread is good and they basically just throw some fries and tomatoes on there, I had to ask for pickles. Its cheap as hell, and a great snack if you are on your way to the Baris Manco museum or to the promenade in Moda. But this is not a frills and thrills place, this is as basic as it gets. This is the way the locals eat on a day to day basis.
Opened by a local top chef, this ultra trendy spot is already becoming a house-hold name. The place was packed when I went there and the burgers live up to the hype. Succulent, juicy meat, great bun and toppings. The only gripe was the white house sauce was a little weird for my palate, but thats a small thing. I can just ask them to leave it off next time. Good fries too, properly seasoned. I think this spot is going to kill it in Kadikoy.
Kadikoys first “BBQ-Joint”, this tiny place tucked away on a street bordering Moda is a hipsters heaven in terms of reclaimed wooden tables, artsy lamps and lots of straight lines. However, thankfully the food lives up to the hype. I only tried the Brisket Burger but it was spot on, and succulent. Worth a look if you want to appreciate what people are doing to make Kadikoy more international and appeasing to the locals living there too.
Basta! Street Food Bar
For the sake of posterity i'll throw this in, mainly because the food here is good, but also because I need a bit of "hipster cred". This is an upscale Turkish street food place, but they don't make it seem wanky and snobby. The food is delicious and they have a slim outside seating area which is perfect for people watching.
Cafe's, Bars & Curiosities
Baris Manco Museum
If you haven't had your head up your ass your entire life, you should know what this man has done for the music scene in Turkey. An absolute legend in his field, this museum situated in his house, is a bizarre and otherworldly tribute to the great man. Try to stifle your laughs at the gaudy interior, replete with piano key stairs, and just pay your homage to his legendary career after a walk through Moda.
A bar that has posters of My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Stereolab on it’s wall has to be my number 1 choice. Tucked on the 2nd floor of a building on Kadife Sokak, this bar is rather Berlin-Brooklyn vibe with its painted brick and thrift store furniture, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better place for music in Istanbul. Great playlists, good DJ’s on the weekends, and super friendly bartenders. Definitely my place to kick back and have a couple beers while they play The Stooges on the stereo.
Literally 2 buildings down from Stereogun (or up if you’re walking in from Moda) this bar has no sign, it’s just a case of having faith and opening the small door on the street level. The bar itself is spread over 3 floors with the DJ booth downstairs and the outside smoking area. YES THEY ARE NON SMOKING INDOORS!!! HALLELUJAH!!!! Ehem… The bar has a rather schitzophrenic music profile, sometimes enchanting old Turkish psych creeps its way between Macy Gray or some horrendous techno. The fact that its non-smoking and the place is really stunning, makes it a worthy stop on your pub crawl.
For any metal / heavy rock fans there are not many good options this side of the sea. However, Wizard, tho the interior looks oddly slick for being a metal bar, has huge scary-friendly looking bartenders, cold beer, and super amicable clientele. It’s packed on weekends and they play decent music although one bar tender has a taste for anything Phil Anselmo does and sneaks in live versions of DOWN songs every now and then. Apart from that, a good spot for some shots and beers.
A rowdy spot with a great circular bar in the middle where you can sit and hob nob with your nearest neighbour or friend, usually plays decent soul or jazz music, clouds of cigarette smoke belt out from all over tho so bring goggles and a long snorkel. They have awesome deals on different days of the week including a bottle of red wine for 7 euro on Tuesdays and Thursdays (can’t really beat that). A local bar in every sense of the word.
If you need more....
Zingir - Another “metal” bar, although more focused on hard rock the times i’ve been there. Totally regular looking uncomplicated bar with friendly bartenders and nice customers. They have some seats outside which are perfect for spotting the locals walking up and down Kadife Sokak (not leering, learning).
Rock N Rolla - After walking around all day exploring, or just feasted at Ciya Sofrasi, walk up a block and a half and you’re at Rock n Rolla. A no frills, no bullshit rock bar with a generous outdoor seating area to try and escape at least SOME of the cigarette smoke (does EVERY fucking person smoke in Turkey). The drinks are cheap and you almost always end up talking to someone since the seats are quite close together.
P.s. For football fanatics, Dumlupinar Sk literally adjacent to Rock n Rolla has tons of cafes/bars with football showing, unless there is a local match on, then they all show the same game. In that case, the only place I found that still shows the Premier League is The Harp.
All these recommendations are just personal opinions and things change, chefs get fired, places open-close, relocate, so take it all with a pinch of salt and discover your own gems too. But please do try a few of these, they have been researched exhaustively.