As the ferry approaches the dock at Kuzguncuk, a charming Bosphorus neighborhood on the Asian side, and passengers start scrambling for position at the bow to be the first to hop off, a soft yellow light, rakı-fueled laughter and a whiff of grilled fish seem to guide the boat in safely. The smell, sight and sound of İsmet Baba, a fish restaurant located right next to the ferry dock, pulse out over the Bosphorus, like a flashing neon sign reading, “locals eat here.”
Orhan the Butcher, Mahmut the Bear, Blind Mustafa, Forty Lies Selim and other regulars memorialized in a framed panel by the door aren’t characters from a Turkish mafia movie, but by the looks of their pictures they sure could be. From the VIP table under the portrait of İsmet Baba, these Turkish goodfellas hold court over this simple, traditional fish restaurant as if it were their own clubhouse.
Diners in Istanbul are spoiled with options for fresh seafood. It seems every neighborhood has at least one acceptable fish restaurant. But most are mere caricatures of places like İsmet Baba, where traditions have been kept sacred for more than 50 years. Where many of this city’s restaurants are kitschy, İsmet is gritty and authentic. This may not be the best restaurant in the city, but it’s got something most of the others have lost, keeping rhythm to an old-school style of Istanbul charm and character.
At İsmet Baba, we like to lean back, hunker down into a long rakı-laced dinner and really enjoy this special place. If the waiter doesn’t beat you to the bottle, the rakı, an anise-flavored liquor akin to ouzo, is poured first, then diluted with water and finally chilled with a couple of ice cubes (if desired). Disrupt the order – or, God forbid, top your glass off before it’s fully empty – and the waiter will probably have to intervene.
Traditionally, white cheese and melon are snacked alongside the first couple of drinks, while the meze tray circulates. Alas, the meze tray; it only takes a few meals out in Istanbul to memorize most of its offerings, and İsmet Baba isn’t carrying any wild cards. However, the pilaki, beans in olive oil, and the cold octopus salad are unusually good. From the yogurty side of the tray we like haydari, a thick, tangy spread of strained yogurt and dill, or the fried eggplant with a garlicky yogurt drizzle. Slices of lakerda, pickled tunny, are a must for many. On a recent visit, we actually ordered up a second portion of this sashimi-like appetizer to go along with the main course. Cold sheep brains are not our favorite as a meze, but at İsmet Baba you can have them fried up as a smart little tempura-like dish, alongside calamari and a house specialty börek, filled with spinach and potatoes.
The catch of the day and its price per portion is posted on a small black board in the dining room. The fried turbot, kalkan, can be a bit heavy after so many rounds of starters. We found the grilled bream, çupra, or a plate of blue fish, cinekop, perfectly prepared and just the right amount.
After the bottle is empty, and you’ve had all the Turkish coffee you can hold, don’t forget to nod goodbye to the old codgers at the VIP table drinking to İsmet Baba and days long gone, they’ll keep an eye on the place, making sure nothing changes while you are gone.
Boats leave every 15 or 20 minutes from Sirkeci, Beşiktaş and Kabataş to Üsküdar (and directly to Kuzguncuk less frequently – check www.ido.com.tr  for schedules). İsmet Baba is a 15-minute walk north of Üsküdar along the coast, or a short minibus or taxi ride. On weekends, reservations are recommended and credit cards are not accepted.
Address: Çarşı Caddesi 1/A, Kuzguncuk