Döner or döner kebab, similar to gyro and shawarma, is serious business for Turkish people, dating back to 18th century in the Ottoman Empire. It is one of the local dishes that we feel so proud of, and one that we love in every form and shape. The formula for the perfect döner is mostly lamb (more than 60%) , and less beef (40%), cooked on a vertical rotisserie with wood coal fire. Döner can be considered a traditional Turkish street food served in many forms; from slices on top of rice, wrapped in lavash, pita or sandwich bread. Foodies would all agree that döner is at its best alone on a plate with some lavash bread aside.
Before we get started, I want to teach some döner jargon to all the beginners;
Döner has two siblings; İskender Kebab (thicker slices of meat with pita bread underneath, salty yogurt, tomato sauce and hot butter on top- a very different story), and Cağ Kebab (thicker meat cooked and served in a very different manner).
* Döner on a plate is served in "portions". I would recommend to always order one portion, see if it fills you up, then order a half portion or more later. This is perfectly acceptable all over döner eateries, and helps you eat warmer döner for the second time around.
* A great döner is coloured in a pinkish brown (usually medium to medium-rare); not overcooked. Blackish or darker brown döner means overcooked and lacking most of its fat and juices.
* With döner on a plate you can expect to have the following as side dishes; rice, salty yogurt, pickles, tomato salad, home fries, and of course lavash.
* "Tarzan" is a döner-slang for döner with nothing; no side dish or lavash. It is how the real döner goes - foodies usually prefer this way. Yes, it has a lot to do with "the" Tarzan; the boy who grows up alone in wilderness and walks around practically naked. So Tarzan döner basically means naked döner.
* In a lavash döner wrap, dürüm in Turkish, it is expected to have nothing but the meat. However we can bend the rules by adding the following; tomatoes, pickles, and onions. But french fries, potato salad, ketchup, mayo and cheese are a definite no - no.
* True döner-foodies usually drink ayran, a traditional Turkish salty yoghurt drink. Coke or other kinds of soda is frowned upon.
* Chicken döner is nice and all but it is not what Turkish people think of as "the döner". It is more like a traditional fast food, not a culture.
* It goes without saying that you never need to make reservations at döner eateries. But be prepared to wait for a table around lunch time.
After the super detailed intro, I believe you're now ready to learn about the top 5 döner eateries of İstanbul. I am well aware of the fact that inveterate döner-lovers will not be happy for me ratting out their best kept local secrets. I believe that a top quality Turkish döner is too good to be kept just for a small group of people!
I'll be very frank; the location is not near any touristic sites. You will deal with traffic, there's no ferry or metro, the ambiance is not lovely, and the man at the register probably didn't smile since mankind landed on moon. But once the döner hits the table none of these matter anymore. The trouble to get there, the ambiance, and the sourpuss register guy slowly disappears. All there is left is you and your perfect lamb to beef ratio'ed, wood coal cooked döner made by top döner chefs from Turkey's Black Sea region. As side dishes you'll be given tomato salad with cucumbers, pickles, home fries, and lavash without being asked. Unfortunately rice is not served here. But the silver lining is that as a dessert you can have rice pudding or havuç dilimi which is a variation on traditional Turkish desert baklava.
To me (and to many döner gourmets) it is the best döner eatery in town. Luckily I live in Anadoluhisarı, a nearby neighborhood, and I get to eat my 1.5 portion of Tarzan döner every week here. Most of my friends joke and say this place is one of the biggest reasons that I prefer to live on Asian side, and in this specific district.
I highly recommend you to visit nearby Anadoluhisarı coast or Otağtepe hill after having a feast at Bayramoğlu. You can take a walk along the coast and see some of the historic places such as Küçüksu Kasrı and waterside mansions. If you're feeling like slacking off, you can enjoy smoking shisha and drinking turkish çay while enjoying the Bosphorus view from the hills of Otağtepe.
Address:Rüzgarlı Bahçe G-69 Sokak, No:2, Kavacık/İstanbul
Telephone: +90 216 413 00 45
2)Karadeniz Döner Büfesi
The name translates to "Black Sea Döner Buffet". And it's no coincidence, most of the greatest döner eateries have chefs from Black Sea region of Turkey. This lovely place, serving since 1973, is located in Beşiktaş bazaar and you can easily notice it by the enormous queue. Local people often joke about the queue; saying that this crowd is for Beşiktaş soccer team's (one of the biggest national football teams) season tickets.
The well-deserved demand is for perfect döner on a plate served with pita bread and grilled tomato and onion salad on the side. If you don't have the time and patience to be seated you can get a döner wrap to go with onion with sumac, and tomatoes. There is one down side of this little darling place though, minor and hardly noticeable, döner is cooked with electric instead of wood coal to be able to keep up with the high demand.
You can top this delicious meal with a traditional Turkish dessert künefe, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar/honey based syrup, in the Beşiktaş bazaar region. And then to burn off those extra calories you can walk either to Ortaköy to enjoy scenery or to Dolmabahçe Palace for a visit.
Adress: Sinanpaşa Mahallesi Mumcu Bakkal Sokak No:6 Beşiktaş/İstanbul
Telephone:+90 212 261 76 93
Located in must-see Sultanahmet district, this eatery is perfect to indulge in your döner cravings. Again lamb to beef ratio is at golden ratio, salt level is optimum, and the döner is cooked in wood coal. A typical döner portion here includes rice, french fries and pickles. You can also enjoy freshly squeezed juices here.
For a quick to go bite of döner, you can have a wrap. And I give them a thumbs up for not putting anything but meat in the lavash wrap. So if you want something extra like pickles or tomatoes, make sure you tell the chef.
Sedef Büfe will be a great pitstop when you're exhausted from walking around, taking photos, and discovering the historic Sultanahmet district.
Adress: Binbirdirek Mahallesi Divanyolu Caddesi, No:21/A Sultanhamet/İstanbul
Telephone:+90 212 516 24 20
Even though this place is located in a residential area that is not public transportation friendly, I'd still highly recommend you to pay a visit. I have a strong case here; great atmosphere, one of the very best döners in town, the best rice pudding, the best ayran and delicious side dishes.
Döner here has 50-50% ratio of lamb vs beef and is absolutely delicious and juicy. It is also easier on the stomach for those who are not used to eating lamb often. The owner of this place has visited top döner chefs and gathered their know-how all over Turkey before opening his joint. For beef and lamb they have very specific rules; they use ribsteak from beef and breast from lamb. They follow an untraditionally method; the döner is cooked in oak wood which gives it a different taste.
I want to take a moment and gush about the ayran here. Here in Tatar Salim, they use water buffalo yoghurt instead of regular cow's milk yoghurt. Yes, the ayran is to die for. I also want to take another moment to gush about the rice pudding dessert which is cooked slowly in the oven, smelling like gallons and gallons of fresh milk. Rice pudding is even better with minced nuts from Black Sea region in it.
After eating your heart out here, with desserts and all, I recommend you to take a bus back to Kadıköy. And burn those calories talking a long walk either on Moda coast, or exploring Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood and taking photos of the murals.
Address: Atilla İlhan Caddesi, Efe Sokak, No:2/1, Küçükbakkalköy Ataşehir/İstanbul
Telephone:+90 216 408 26 26
This its-bitsy döner sanctuary is located at Eminönü, on the way from the Spice Market to Beyazıt. There is very limited seating inside, and locals usually prefer to go döner wraps. But the passage across the street has seven tables for Zümrüt Büfe. I highly recommend you to get a table and order your Tarzan döner on a plate. They have a very unusual side dish of mashed potatoes. For drinks, locals usually prefer to cool down with homemade lemonade.
Also note that the döner wraps here are unconventionally big; if you're not starving one wrap will be enough for two. Additionally there are different weights of döner for wraps, you can choose anything from 50, 100 to 150 grams.
After this mini-feast you can walk up to Beyazıt and take photos of the historic sites. I also recommend you to try one of the greatest Turkish coffees with the company of shisha at Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi in Beyazıt.
Address: Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Sabuncu Hanı Caddesi No:12, Eminönü Fatih/İstanbul
Telephone:+90 212 522 89 79