I hate wasting a meal. It’s probably from living for over a decade in New York City, where you are inevitably just a few blocks from the world’s best you-name-it (doughnut, Korean chicken wings, Pho noodle soup…). In any case, I tend to think that eating poorly is simply a failure of the imagination (or Smartphone).
But, in tourism zones, you can get stuck. No one wants to wander 20 minutes off the path when you’re packing in 5 historical sites in a day. So, here are a few diamond-in-the-rough restaurants near the sights. (As a caveat, happily, in Istanbul, people are serious about good food – even for tourists – so you can’t go too wrong. But why not go really, really right?)
Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hippodrome & Basilica Cistern
Tourism ground zero. Facing off around Sultanahmet park, you will likely visit this group of sites in one shot. Soon after, or perhaps in the middle, you will need a snack. Or a tea. Or just a small respite.
Here are three ideas:
Tea and / or lunch in a quiet, leafy courtyard. Tucked behind Hagia Sofia, Caferağa Madrasa is a series of tiny ateliers around a leafy atrium. Out of one of the wooden doors, you can also take tea, coffee or a simple mixed plate of Turkish home cooking.
Best in the warmer months when you can sit outside, it does remain open in winter, too, when you can eat inside of a cozy room. Before or after your meal, stroll around to the various artisans to see some traditional crafts, including Ebru, an oil painting technique.
Or, if you’re up for a lunch that’s more grub-slingy than tea-sippy, there are some legitimately good meatballs at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi.
Traditional is a plate of meatballs with some yogurt, perhaps starting with a lentil soup and ending with tea. For those of us who don’t go in for beef or lamb, the lentil soup with a shepherd’s salad of cucumber, tomato, onion and white cheese makes for great fuel.
For a luxurious experience, run down to the Four Seasons - Sultanahmet (website).
Built into an old jail, the fortress shuts out the cacophony of Sultanahmet, which is almost enough to justify their outrageous prices.
Balıkçı Sabahattin (website): Breaking one of the rules of high-end fish dining, Balıkçı Sabahattin has no view of the water. But ask any local where to eat fish in the old city, and Sabahattin will undoubtedly top their list. Its restored Ottoman mansion and large garden provide a perfect oasis from the mobbed streets of Sultanahmet, and the well-executed seafood explains to the loyalty of its following.
Nar Lokantası (website): A rooftop restaurant just steps from the Grand Bazaar, Nar’s vertical garden, greyed wood chairs and rich fabrics exude an air of tranquil modernity – about 180 degrees from the Grand Bazaar’s colorful mayhem. The fare is traditional, including a dessert bar neatly displaying honeyed sweets, but served with an eye to aesthetics on broad white dishes. The dining room sits above the local luxury-goods store Armaggan, a source for clean-lined, modern Ottoman designs in silver, crystal and textiles.
Spice Bazaar, Rustem Paşa Mosque, Eminonu Ferry Terminal
Hamdi (website): 4 floors of kebaps. This place bustles, and they know what they are doing. Just go in, and go along for the ride.
Veggies will have a great meal of mezes, though their carnivore pals will still eye them with pity, if my experience is any indication.
Or, cross the Golden Horn, pushing past the fish restaurants cheek-by-jowl under the Galata Bridge, and head to Karakoy, a port area undergoing rapid gentrification.
For a simple fish meal you cannot beat Tarihi Karaköy Balıkçısı (literally Historical Karaköy Fish Monger; website), open only for lunch. The fish soup (balık çorbası) is locally renowned, as is the sea bass in paper.
In recent years, the owners have opened an outpost on the top floor of the same building, where the same perfect fish is served in front of one of the best views of the old city (only open for dinner).
Ca D’Oro (location) serves Turkish-Italian fusion with a view of the old city within SALT, a hub of Karakoy’s redevelopment. With a tip-to-toe renovation, the building overwhelms most of its uses – the research center, while inviting, has few visitors; the museum space can feel sparse.
But Ca D’Oro shows no signs of intimidation. Inside, its exposed beams, midcentury modern furniture, and bookshelves with design volumes would be at home in Manhattan, but the view of mosques, minarets and aqueducts remind you of the touring yet to do.
Karaköy Gulluoğlu (website), which sells an astounding variety of Turkish sweets – with walnuts or pistachios, standard pastry or shredded, cream-filled or straight-up.
Honestly, there are almost too many options in this area – Galata is home to the Genoese tower that sticks up out of Beyoglu and also many of the city’s best new cafes, boutique hotels and bars.
But, a couple of the gazillion that you might want to try include:
Sensus Wine Bar (website): featuring only Turkish wine, this is your best shot at getting a taste of something good. The wine business is still developing in Turkey, but Sensus can guide you to some producers who know what they are doing. Cheese and snacks will keep you on your bar stool.
Refik (website): a boisterous meyhane, Refik serves mezes and fish while never letting your rakı glass go empty. On a lively strip of restaurants and bars in Tunel, you can easily stumble to another venue afterward.
This exquisite Byzantine church features some of the best-preserved mosaics and frescoes in the city. It is a bit off the beaten path, however, and sits in a fairly traditional neighborhood. Happily, right next door is also a restaurant worth traveling for.
Asitane (website) serves Ottoman cuisine, just like the Sultans ate. The chef has painstakingly researched the original recipes for Ottoman dishes and aims to recreate them at asitane. He can’t recreate the harem for you, or make it OK for you to lounge on floor cushions during your meal, but otherwise you’re pretty well transported.