Authentic Turkish Food in Istanbul
With a population of close to 16 million people, Istanbul is a thriving metropolis that spans both Europe and Asia. It is also home to thousands of immigrants and refugees, and as a reflection of this, its cuisine represents far more than just the Turkish palate. From Lebanese kebabs, to Korean fried chicken, to a classic American hamburger - all of these can be found on the streets of Istanbul.
So, if you can find any type of cuisine in Istanbul, what about Turkish food? As crazy as this phrase sounds, it can be quite a challenge to find good, authentic Turkish food in Istanbul, especially in the more popular, touristic areas. Many restaurants in this area serve a more “global” menu in the hopes of catering to the almost 15 million tourists that come through Istanbul every year.
The key to finding authentic and delicious Turkish food is knowing where to look, and what to look for. Some of the best Turkish restaurants are located in the most unassuming buildings and hard to find places. While these restaurants may not catch your eye from the outside, eating authentic Turkish food while in Turkey is a must-have experience.
Istanbul’s Most Underrated Restaurants
(Centrally located in walking distance from the Grand Bazaar and the Basilica Cistern)
The entrance to this restaurant is a tiny door and a set of narrow stairs right off one of the main walking streets of Sultanahmet. You can sit overlooking the busy streets below with a clear view of the beautiful dome and spires of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque. While hosted in a very unassuming, simple building, the food speaks for itself. Open since 1986, it has been loved for decades by locals and tourists alike.
Aslan restaurant serves traditional Turkish “home-cooked” food that is made fresh daily. There are both vegetarian and meat options, as well as fresh salads and incredible desserts. Instead of having a menu, you choose from whichever dishes have been cooked that day. For the best experience, trust the chefs’ recommendations. The cooks and servers are all very warm and welcoming.
This restaurant is a nod to the older, simpler times, and is called an ‘Esnaf Lokantasi’. To understand what makes this restaurant special, you have to know a bit of the history behind these places.
The History of Esnaf Lokantas
Let’s first look at the meaning of these two words:
Esnaf: someone who runs a small business or local shop; an artisan
Lokanta comes from the latin locanda which means a place to sit or stay. It is thought that these “lokantas” were both for eating and staying overnight, sort of like an inn in ancient times. Over time, the meaning of lokanta has now shifted to just being a place to eat.
Private guide Gamze Artaman, who has been guiding professionally in Istanbul since 1991, says, “I remember in my childhood, we hardly ever said “restaurant,” or if we ever used this term, it would mean a really high-end place to eat. Generally, if we were going out to eat, which then was very rare, we would be going to a lokanta. Let’s say a simpler place to eat other than a restaurant.”
One hundred or even 50 years ago, there were not many options for eating food other than your own home. The working class would either bring their own food to work with them (in layered lunch boxes, sometimes made of copper) or they would eat in esnaf lokantas where they could find the kind of food similar to what they would eat at home.
People who worked for bigger companies, the white collar class, would usually eat provided by their company or had enough money to go out and eat. When you were an esnaf (artisan) though, you would either bring your own food with you to work, or you would eat out at a very simple place where they served ‘home-cooked” food. “That’s what the esnafs (artisans) would want,” says Gamze Artaman, “imagine... not THAT sophisticated as white collar people and so they would want food like home.”
As Turkish culture has evolved, these “esnaf lokantas” are no longer just a cheap and simple place to eat as they used to be. However, they have stayed true to their history in that they still serve traditional, authentic, “home-cooked” Turkish food.
(Located a short walk from the Kadikoy ferry terminal)
With several locations in the Kadikoy district, this famous group of restaurants has been open since 1987. Their dream was to carry the rich culture and traditions of Turkish cuisine forward; to preserve its authenticity amongst the modernization of Istanbul. If you are looking for authentic Turkish food on the Asian side of Istanbul, Ciya restaurant is, without a doubt, the best spot for Turkish food. It offers a vast array of delicious and authentic Turkish dishes, including classics like shakshuka and red lentil soup, to more rare, traditional dishes like imam bayilidi, icli kofte, and sarma. They also serve soups, mezzes (appetizers), kebap, pide, lahmacun, a wide array of “home-cooked” dishes, and of course, incredible desserts. Everything is cooked daily with the freshest of ingredients. As is common in most Turkish restaurants, the chefs and servers are incredibly warm and friendly.
These two restaurants are definitely the best of the best when it comes to quality, flavor, authenticity, and atmosphere. The simple fact that they have been around for decades speaks for itself.
Other restaurants that must be mentioned when talking about authentic Turkish cuisine are:
Kömür Restaurant in Fatih, Istanbul
Havuzlu Restaurant located inside the Grand Bazaar
Hacı Abdullah on Istiklal Street
Hünkar Resturant in Nisantasi
- By Danielle Jose, with a huge thanks to Private Guide Gamze Artaman for her in-depth knowledge of the history of the esnaf locantas, as well as for personally taking me to these incredible restaurants. Fill out the form below if you would like to book a tour with her!