by Asli Pelit

Imroz meyhane, Istanbul, TurkeyAlong with the dramatic blue waters of Turkey‘s Bosphorus, the opulent dome and minarets of Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, travelers to Istanbulalways come away wowed by its incredible cuisine. And I confess, as a seventh-generation local, I dream about the sight of a well prepared Turkish table when I’m away from home.

Atop seven hills where two continents meet, encircled by the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the perfect setup of the ancient city once known as Constantinople  influences our way of living and of course eating — we take dining and drinking seriously here! And no matter what their income level or ethnic/social background, people get together with friends at least once a week to drink and eat for hours in the most typical and traditional of our restaurants, the meyhane(pronounced mei-HA-nee, meaning “wine house”).

Similar in feel and concept to Spain’s tapas bars, our unpretentious meyhanes are a world unto themselves, frequented by young and old, rich and poor, fancy and dowdy — they’re probably the only spots in Istanbul where you can witness such disparate groups hanging out together.  They’re loud, dodgy, bustling, and popular for celebrations (and if you’re wondering what Muslim Turks are doing drinking, we’re obviously pretty liberal on the question of alcohol).

Most locals agree that meyhanes serve the best mezes in town, washed down by most with raki, the licorice-flavored distilled spirit that’s our national drink. Mezes are essentially elaborate yet inexpensive pub snacks, designed to encourage you to drink more, arriving on trays full of tantalizing different textures and tastes. Consuming them’s a very leisurely procedure: take a sip of raki, perhaps a slice of feta and melon or a mouthful of eggplant salad, then a bit of crusty bread, followed by another mouthful of raki, then some garlicky yogurt dip, then deep-friend calamari and mussels, more raki, followed by a crispy fried herring, yet another sip…and so on throughout the evening.

We all have our favorites, where the waiter knows our names, where we never wait for table, and are never served stale bread or mezes. Here are some of mine, most located in Taksim, Beyoğlu and surrounding old parts of town. Afiyet olsun (bon appétit)!

Cumhuriyet, in the heart of Beyoğlu, is a good place to start. The most famous meyhane on the Balıkpazarı restaurant row, its reputation was established when Turkey’s revered founder Kemal Atatürk used to drink here (cumhuriyet means “democracy”). It’s known for uskumru dolması (stuffed mackerel), topik (spicy, potato-and-chickpea-based), and çerkez tavuğu (a marvelous mixture of garlic and boneless chicken pieces). Balıkpazarı Sokak 47; 0212/252-0886.

Near Taksim Square on the buzzing Nevizade restaurant row, İmroz (above right) was opened in 1941 by Yorgo Okumuş, who believe it or not is still on the job! Armenian specialties are the stars — don’t miss, among its 35mezes, lakerda (bonito in brine), pilaki (white beans and onions in vinagrette), and tarama (fish roe and breadcrumbs). The summer terrace is a real treat. Nevizade Sokak 24; 0212/249-9073.

Refík Aslan opened his small Refík in  Beyoğlu fifty years ago and still runs it, along with his son. Traditional Turkish main dishes are served at lunch, while the night belongs to mezes such as house specialties karalahana dolması (kale stuffed with meat), stewed anchovies, and kuzu sarma (lamb chitlins). Closed Sundays; reserve Friday/Saturday. Sofyalı Sok 10-12; 0212/243-2834.

pic-blog-post-europe-turkey-istanbul-meyhanes-arnavut-dish.jpg?w=150&width=150Yakup 2 has been in business near Tünel (part of Beyoğlu, so called because it’s home to Istanbul’s first subway line) for 27 years, known for its distinctive hotmezes, like arnavut ciğeri (fried liver; right), mushrooms sautéed in butter, andkağıtta pastırma (dried meat flavored with cumin and garlic, cooked in parchment). Considering Asmali Mescit Street has become Beyoğlu’s coolest hangout on weekends, reservations are a must. Asmalı Mescýt Mahallesý 35-37; 0212/249-2925.

One of many little meyhanes on the buzzing Beyoğlu street of the same name, Nevizade is also dubbed “Eski Lefter” (Lefter was a legendary soccer player of the 1950′s, known for his right foot and his raki drinking). This little joint has become a haunt of artists and writers, and is usually packed on weekends, so show up early or  reserve ahead.  Nevizade Sokak 12; 0212/251-1634.

If you take a ride across Galata Bridge to Istanbul’s oldest quarter, Kumkapı, try Kör Agop. This 65-year-old classic in the historic customs building, in an area with lots of fish restaurants, is popular with foreigners, with special house mezes including fish soup. A fasıl heyeti (classical Turkish music ensemble) plays nightly from 8 pm. Kumkapı Meydanı Ördekçi Bakkal Sokak 7; 0212/517-2334.

meyhane Kuleli in Istanbul, TurkeyA quarter-century-old eatery in Samatya, a neighborhood that predates Istanbul itself, Kuleli (right) is also known for its fishy fare. Here you can’t go wrong ordering the kalamar (calamari), ançuez (salted anchovy), sardalya (sardines), ahtapot(octopus), lakerda (salted bonito) and çiroz (dried mackerel). Reservations recommended. Büyük Kuleli Sokak 38; 0212/587-9438.

Last but not least, Safa is Istanbul’s oldest still-operating meyhane, dating from 1879 and occupying a high-ceilinged single-story building in Yedikule, the waterfront neighborhood near the eponymous famous fortress/prison (now a museum). Its walls are decorated with rakibottles and shots of Atatürk, and the Arnavut ciğeri (savory nuggets of fried liver with onion) and lakerda are must-try classics, as are most any of the fish dishes. İlyasbey Caddesi 169; 0212/585-5594.