Where to Eat in Istanbul

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I am always searching for authentic Turkish restaurants that will impress visiting guests, appeal to diverse culinary tastes and offer a unique dining experience.  I must admit: when we go out to dinner, we rarely go out to Turkish meals. We seek out Japanese, Thai, Italian and other unique flavors, simply because we are lucky enough to taste a variety of different Turkish foods on a regular basis. Thus, the conundrum  Where do you take guests who are visiting Istanbul and want to eat Turkish, and only Turkish food. Here are my recommendations:

Zubeyir Ocakbasi

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Also located in Taksim, this restaurant is down Bekar Sokak at the top of Istiklal, 5 minutes from Taksim Square. It is famous among Istanbullians, foodies and sadly, it is probably in every major guide book by now. The Ocakbasi refers to the traditional grills that kebaps are prepared upon.  Immediately upon walking inside, you will see (and smell) their large grill, and notice the photos on the wall which showcase all of their famous patrons. This place has a very special place in my heart because it is where we brought our two families together before our wedding. The service is spectacular. The environment is lively. Everything on the menu is fresh. And, every bite melts in your mouth. Be prepared to splurge a little bit to truly experience this place. It is best to come here with a large crowd. Select at least 6 of the appetizers from the appetizer plate. Order a big bottle of Raki. Drink and be merry! Be sure to make reservations or go early…

Ciya Sofrasi

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Located in Kadikoy, this restaurant has become the gem of the Turkish culinary scene. It was founded by a chef who wanted to reintroduce Turkish cuisine to the world, and show the diversity of ingredients and flavors that exist within Turkey’s borders. There are numerous things that make this restaurant unique. I will share 4 of them with you. First, there is a buffet of various Turkish appetizers. You will be given a plate and you can (and should) fill your plate with each and every dish. The plate is weighed to determine the price. Secondly, the menu is comprehensive and informative. Next to each item, you will find the city it originated from. It is wonderful to see the diversity and learn about regional specialties we rarely get to experience in Istanbul. Thirdly, the walnut dessert (Ceviz Tatlisi) is the most incredible and indulgent thing I have ever eaten. Be prepared for your mouth to water.  Finally, Ciya is located in Kadikoy, a lively neighborhood on the Asian side. Come early to walk along the waterfront, explore its lively food market and to sip coffee at any one of its cafes. You will observe a young, hip and liberal crowd that call Kadikoy home. After dinner, stop for a beer and sit outside for some excellent people-watching.

Asmali Cavit

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Asmali Cavit has the best Turkish mezes (appetizers) in the city. Each and every dish is fresh and flavorful. The waiters are friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is lively and warm. It is the perfect place to go if you are looking for a traditional Turkish restaurant with GREAT food. You will start by being summoned to the display case, where you will select the cold appetizers that appeal to you. Once you select them, they will be brought to your table in small plates. I predict you will quickly devour them and want more. Next, move on to the hot appetizers. I recommend the borek and some fried hamsi (small fish). If you still have room, tackle the menu. Oh, and do not attempt to drink anything but Raki for this meal.

Adana Ocakbasi

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This restaurant is not only in my neighborhood, but on my street. However, it is more than its close vicinity to my humble abode that puts it on my list. This is a no-thrills, great food locale that will give you an authentic perspective of how the locals eat. This is where old friends gather and the neighborhood comes to rejoice. The tea man passes through with a tray of tea and the neighborhood drummer stops by to play (and collect tips). Your meal will begin with smoked eggplant puree, covered in a garlic yogurt sauce, with olive oil and paprika flakes sprinkled on top. My description does not do it justice. I guarantee your taste buds will come alive. There is also a very flavorful salad with tomatoes  onions, parsley, pomegranate syrup and a array of seasoning. After you get a taste of these dishes, you will be too excited to hold back on the main dish. I recommend a mixed platter and insist you do not go here without sampling the Adana Kebab. 

Kantin

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Imagine a hip SoCal cafe, championed by the Slow Food Movement with uniquely Turkish tastes. Kantin is a refuge from the city. It is bright, airy and glamorous, without the attitude. The menu changes daily based on available ingredients. Everything is fresh, light full of innovative flavors. This is modern Turkish fusion cuisine at its absolute best. Be prepared to be surprised and left wanting more. The last time my parents were in Istanbul, we ate here on two different occasions. I can still smell the lilies that welcomed us at the door. There is also a lovely garden in the back…the perfect place to spend a hot summer afternoon.

Kiva

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When my friend first introduced me to Kiva, she introduced it as ‘the Ciya Sofrasi of the European side”. In many ways it is. It has an appetizer bar that allows you to sample many different Turkish dishes and a menu that highlights which region each dish is from. It also introduces the diversity of Turkish cuisine and moves beyond the staple kebabs. Additionally, it is located in the shadow of Galata Tower and has wonderful outdoor seating. It is the perfect place to people watch and take in the magic of this beautiful, charming and historic area of the city.  Additionally, the service is absolutely spectacular and it provides a wonderful reason to wander through the cobblestone streets of Galata, admire the sparkling tower at night and basque in the romance and charm of this chic and lively neighborhood.

Haci Baba

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Located in the seaside neighborhood of Arnavutkoy, infamous for its fish restaurants, this place offers something special. With fishing nets hanging on the walls, old photographs of Istanbul along the staircase and sketches on its menu, this old-school restaurant offers a unique style of kitsch that is difficult to find in Istanbul. On top of that?! They have the most amazing fish kebab, where the fish is cooked with lemon, tomatoes and peppers. It soaks up the flavors in the most magical of ways. There is no alcohol here, so go for lunch or a casual dinner. Afterwards, be sure to grab so ice cream at Girandola Dondurma…the absolute best in the city.

Konak Kebap

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Konak is located in the heart of Taksim and has two locations on Istiklal Caddessi: one in the middle of the street and the other at the end of Istiklal, near the Sisane Metro station. It is warm, lively and welcoming the second you step through the door. They immediately serve warm bread, fresh cheese and butter, as well as a Turkish appetizer called Ezme (essentially Turkish salsa). The menu is diverse. It offers kebab, pide (Turkish pizza), soups and more. I personally recommend the Beyti Kebab, which is a wrapped kebab, cut into small pieces, drenched in tomato sauce and served with yogurt and parsley. It is affordable and the food is great!  It is perfect for a big lunch or a fast dinner (it is a loud and lively place. Plus, they do not serve alcohol). It is the perfect place to start your trip as you explore Istiklal, the main pedestrian street of Taksim.

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