Dining with friends is an Istanbullu's favorite evening activity. The countless restaurants all over the city and along the Bosphorus shores are filled each evening with jolly crowds of diners, the tables in front of them groaning under the weight of innumerable dishes.
It's great fun, the only displeasure coming with the bill at the end of the evening. Those tidy machine-printed bills listing all items ordered, calculating the tax, etc. are not (yet) found everywhere in Istanbul. Rather, what you may be asked to pay is a l-o-n-g bill scribbled in cryptic Waiter Runic that lends itself handily to cheating.
Stories abound of foreign visitors being presented with TL250 bills for meals that would've cost a Turk TL50.
Problematic restaurant practices include:
—Bringing you items you never ordered and charging for them
—Charging for items you never ordered and never received
—Overcharging for items (especially fish)
—Recommending the most expensive items (such as out-of-season fish)
—Faulty addition (always in the restaurant's favor)
It's truly a pity to have a fine evening experience ruined by such disrespect, but sometimes it happens. Here are some tips for avoiding unpleasantness:
1. Ask at your hotel for a restaurant recommendation and, if possible, have a hotel staffer write a note on the back of the hotel's card to the restaurant staff—just so the restaurant knows some local (upon which the restaurant's prosperity may in part depend) is watching. Presumably the restaurateur will want to keep you happy and treat you well so that your report to the hotel staff is good and brings more customers.
2. Take your time ordering, especially the fish, and be sure to ask mevsimli mi? ("Is it in season?") Someone in the restaurant will speak English so the Turkish word may not even be necessary, but the point is to order a fish that is plentiful and in season, not something that is a seasonal rarity and therefore especially expensive. (Fish is more expensive than meat in any case—perhaps 100% to 150% more expensive.)
3. Check prices on a menu/price list, and if there is no menu/price list (which is possible, as they are not used nearly so much in Turkey as in Europe and the USA), be sure to ask the price of each item. This is tedious, but the possibility of cheating may make it necessary. I myself would write my own 'ghost bill,' noting the items ordered and the quoted prices, and do my own tally. By doing it, I could be pretty well assured that it would not be necessary, because the owner, seeing my resolution to avoid cheating, would not bother to do so.
4. Notice what is brought to your table and question any items that you did not specifically order. If you want them, ask the price and agree to keep them. If you don't, have them taken away immediately, untouched.
5. Bring a calculator and add up the bill yourself, taking your time and questioning any items you can't read or otherwise don't understand. (You probably have a calculator on your phone.) Keep in mind that it is the duty of any establishment to provide any customer with clear and comprehensible information on any item(s) being purchased. They owe it to you to do this; you don't owe them anything but payment for items and service received. They're supposed to make the accounting clear, accurate and easy.
In most Istanbul restaurants all this is not necessary. Service is good and honest and the food first-rate, but as with travel anywhere, you should be active in the defense of your interests. The more active you are, the more pleasant (and inexpensive) your evening is likely to be.
—by Tom Brosnahan