The five meyhanes that define what a meyhane is.
For someone living in Istanbul, going out means going to a meyhane. It’s where families meet to have a dinner out, where couples exchange nostalgic glances, where friends reunite after a long time, where the elderly reminisce of old times. And especially since the 2010s young people have taken it up again to go to meyhanes. Perhaps a little because of inflation and exuberant alcohol taxes on imported liquor. Or perhaps just because as a concept it slays. Small plates to share and a drink to be sipped slowly give you the perfect meal to be full but not bloated and to be tipsy but not drunk.
Similar to pubs in the UK, meyhanes comes with their history and visual and behavioural codes. They look a certain way, feel a certain way. Customers expect swift, casual and professional service without the fuss of fine-dining. Businesses focus on making customers happy rather than providing a culinary experience. And those who succeed in that as well as have excellent food become iconic. Here is a list of those that define the Istanbul meyhane scene with beautiful food.
Asmalı Cavit, or just Cavit, is perhaps the epitome of a meyhane. It sits in a narrow alley in Asmalımescit, once the center of diversity in Istanbul, then the harbor of alternative night life. While the neighbourhood is not living its glory days of the past it still hosts household names of bars, restaurants and event venues.
Cavit, named after the owner, stands out from other classic meyhanes with its impeccable mezes and hot appetisers. The tarama is a reference point here. The köfte, while not a meyhane staple is also a signature. The service staff reflects the attitude of the restaurant with professional and clean service with a dash of casual genuinity.
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Giritli Restoran is the most elegant meyhane in İstanbul. If one were to believe in societal conceptions of gender they’d say it is a restaurant with a woman’s touch. The stone patio, the purring cats, the large painted photograph of Crete’s port on the wall, wide and white-clothed tables and a still air make this place an escape from the hustle and bustle of the neighbouring Kumkapı, Old Town and the rest of Cankurtaran. Perfect for a cool summer evening.
The food here is Greek- and specifically Cretian-inspired meyhane fare with a heavier focus on seafood. My favourite way to go about here is to order the tasting menu for the table, it brings all the perfect dishes such as the salmon pastırma, the seafood orzo amuse bouche, grilled sardines in vine leaf, as well as cooked greens and a myriad of mezes. The shallow fried courgettes would be a nice addition to the order list.
A true regular’s spot. İsmet Baba is one of the few old timer meyhanes that still hold a spot for their local regulars. The neighbourhood Kuzguncuk used to be in the outskirts of the city once and hence İsmet Baba’s clientele consisted of local fishermen, workers and residents. Now it has become a hotspot for well-off Istanbulites. However the restaurant honours the regulars both with their pictures on its wall as well as a special table where they always have a place to sit.
İsmet Baba is perfect for winter months when you want to sit inside but have a view of the Bosphorus. Pretty classic meyhane fare here, hard to go wrong.
Balat Sahil is perhaps a little bit different from the other meyhanes in its menu, but still encapsulates the perfect feeling of being at a meyhane. A small space consisting of two floors and a couple tables outside, Balat Sahil is not one for grandeur. But it’s a historic meyhane with rare meze finds.
The onion dolma and mushroom mezes here are unique. The cold-cooked fish mezes are similarly excellent. You can take your risk with the cooked fish as well, but the mezes are such delicacies that it’d be a shame not to try many.
The jewel of Beylerbeyi. İnciraltı is one of those Narnia-like situations where you are transported to a different time and world when you enter. Its squeaky wooden floors, Turkish classical music bouncing off of the walls decorated with old pictures and the well-groomed staff with a soft and respectful demeanor reflect an old Istanbul that is not there anymore.
A more nostalgic spot inside but a cheerful one out in the garden, İnciraltı’s menu also goes beyond classic meyhane fare. Their 15-spice pickled fish is a delicacy, the deep fried lamb brains with mustard sauce is a delight. They have perfect shallow fried liver and most of their mezes are excellent. The papaz yahni (priest’s stew) is the perfect cold braised dish of sardines and shallots.