It’s the perpetual traveller’s conundrum— how to balance discovering local food with exploring local sights. I wandered the length and breadth of Turkey but when I decided to share my experiences in writing, the prospect of summarising 15 days of food encounters was overwhelming.
I believe a single-day city food guide is more useful and practical than a synopsis of a nation’s cuisine. Here is my Istanbul food guide covering 3 locations frequented by tourists – Taksim Square, Sultanahmet and the banks of the Bosphorus.
1. Best of Taksim Square – Hafiz Mustafa 1864
There is a Hafiz Mustafa everywhere in Turkey. Everywhere. The brand is virtually synonymous with Turkish fare and a great introduction to casual dining here. We visited the branch at Taksim Square because it was a few steps from my hotel.
Our waiter suggested Saray Tabagi (139TL) to begin. It is a platter of 10 traditional mixed pistachio and walnut sweets. They are all sticky and flaky, some hard and others soft, in a variety of textures. I think it is all a bit much for the Singaporean palate – even my dining companions who love sweets found the intensity of the saccharine overwhelming. However, the other tables proved it is a consistent hit with the local crowd.
We chose to ‘reset’ our mouths with Knafe (39TL). The layers of cheese within each piece work well with the subtle sweetness of pastry, clotted cream and nuts in supporting roles. After the Saray Tabagi, we decided against the optional ice cream or whipped cream.
To say that Suboregi (25TL) is a drier and less saucy version of lasagna would not be far off the mark. The circular dish and soft cheese filling also reminded us of fresh pizza when it was served.
Like the Greeks, Turks are nuts about intense coffee. Turk Kahvesi (19.5TL), literally “Turkish Coffee” comes in a teeny tiny cup because it is concentrated into that form. If you like your beans very finely ground and your cuppa highly caffeinated, you’ll love it. I was the least Turkish at my table and needed help to finish the miniscule serving.
Gümüşsuyu, Sıraselviler Cd. No:11, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
+90 212 252 05 28
Daily: 24 hours
2. Close second at Taksim Square – Kizilkayalar
Right across the street from Hafiz Mustafa is Kizilkayalar, a popular eatery in the area that has occupied the same spot for 44 years.
It is famous for its Islak Hamburger which is presented within steamed buns. Famous for its special burger sauce that was honed over months of research and feedback, it is packed during meal times and weekends.
The appropriately named Luxurious Burger should be on your Turkish bucket list. It is the upgraded version of the basic Islak Hamburger, its flavours enhanced by Kizilkayalar’s special sauce and hearty Russian salad.
Doner is another one of the recommendations when you visit, as are the freshly-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices. After downing a couple of big burgers here, it makes sense to wander over to Hafiz Mustafa for a dose of the sweet.
Katip Mustafa Çelebi, Sıraselviler Cd. No:2/C, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
+90 212 243 63 53
Sun to Thur: 8am – 5am
Fri & Sat: 8am – 6.30am
3. Best of Sultanahmet (Hagia Sofia area) – Le Safran Restaurant
I had heard a lot of great things about the food at Le Safran but on the day we visited, we were drawn by a vocal, excited crowd. The throng stood in a circle, phones pulled out, faces intermittently illuminated by flashes of orange fire. It was the preparation of the Chicken Casserole (56TL).
Theatrics are part of the cooking process that is done entirely in the open. The chef slices and dices fresh chicken before executing a series of flourishes over a flaming hot stone.
Viola! Chicken casserole. It was good but especially because of the preceding show.
Other things you should try from the menu are the Chicken wings (45TL), Cheese Rolls (25TL), and Orange Chicken (52TL).
Orange Chicken is served with thick chips, rice, pita and a slice of orange. The sauce is prepared with orange as well, giving the dish a pleasant citrus tang that buddies up to the savoury highlights of the other ingredients.
Alemdar, Alemdar Cd. No:11, 34412 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
+90 212 514 88 99
Daily: 24 hours
4. Second Best of Sultanahmet (Hagia Sofia area) – Mihri Café and Restaurant
Just 3 minutes from the beautiful former church and now mosque Hagia Sofia, Mihri is the place to stop for a meal as you explore one of the most touristy areas of Istanbul. I found it to be priced in the mid range despite the excellent location.
We tried both the Chicken Doner (64TL) and the Beef Doner that are served with tomato and a generous helping of fries. The chicken was far better – the thin strips of boneless chicken were infused with spices and had a beautiful crispiness to them. The relatively chunkier beef strips seemed to have had a harder time absorbing the flavours and were too dry for our liking.
Mihir also serves Knafeh (34TL) like Hafiz Mustafa but cannot match them for flavour intensity. Mihir’s excellent location makes for beautiful scenery and a very enjoyable vibe. Just don’t visit in peak tourist season or meal times— it can be impossible to get a table.
Cankurtaran, Ayasofya Meydanı No:2, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
+90 212 517 73 73
Daily: 10am – 7pm
5. Best of the Bosphorus River – Galapera Restaurant
If you miss dining along Boat Quay, Galapera Restaurant is the temporary substitute along the Bosphorus River. The entire stretch is a lively place with touts urging you to dine at their establishment, very reminiscent of our very own Arab Street.
Fresh seafood abounds at the line of outdoor riverside eateries but Galapera is the standout. In-house violinists serenade you at your table as you savour the fine fare, accompanied by the calls of seagulls and the gentle lapping waves.
A waiter pushes a trolley of the freshest catch along the aisles, encouraging you to choose your favourite. The food is fresh, beautifully prepared and well presented. It can be expensive, though, so come prepared.
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