Istanbul Eats lunch hunting tip #1:
Wander into one of Istanbul’s numerous districts of small commerce and find yourself on a small street with a shoe cobbler, a knife sharpener and hardware shops.
Enter one of these shops, preferably one where two old men are sitting at the counter looking at the horse racing form or working the crossword puzzle.
Ask them where they eat lunch. (Note: They might misinterpret your question and try to send you to the place they think you should eat lunch.) Repeat the question clearly: “Where do you eat lunch?”
Follow their instructions to the nearest esnaf lokantası*.
This simple strategy is how we stumbled upon an excellent place in Karaköy’s Perşembe Pazarı called Mutfak Dili (“Kitchen Talk,” in Turkish), a bustling little lunch spot near the Golden Horn that keeps the local shop owners sated with cheap and tasty daily specials.
Unlike many such Istanbul lunch spots, where character is often sacrificed for a misguided, sterile “hygienic atmosphere,” Mutfak Dili’s charm remains intact. Its dark, paneled interior with pictures of the owner mugging for the camera brings to mind a Chicago dive bar. The smattering of tables out front set against the bright blue-painted façade almost reminds us of an unintentionally hip café in Barcelona. The location alone, in one of the oldest, grungiest, non-gentrified markets in Istanbul (one devoted to hardware and nautical supplies), adds quite a dramatic backdrop to a lunch excursion.
But the folks at Mutfak Dili are not just sitting around looking cool; they’ve got it going on in the kitchen, too. On a recent visit, for starters, we opted for the fresh stewed green beans served cold in olive oil in place of a salad and on the side, a bowl of cacık, chilled yogurt with diced cucumbers. Though Turkish cacık is, principally and linguistically, the same as the Greek gyros spread tzatziki, the yogurt in the Turkish version is thinned out and served as a refreshing cold soup. The imam bayıldı, also a cold dish of eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, peppers and onions, had perfect balance for a dish that usually seems to give way to the onions and garlic. The restaurant also serves esnaf lokantası classics like patlıcan karnıyarık, eggplants stuffed with meat and peppers, and taş kebabı, a succulent beef stew.
For dessert, the antep fıstıklı yeşil yayla tatlısı felt like the happy union of two of our favorite Turkish sweets, the syrup-soaked cake revani and a traditional pistachio baklava. As we spooned up the last of a diabolical chocolate pudding called aşkım aşkım, one older tradesman walked by and eyed our table forlornly: “In the days when I could eat like that…”
Tradesmen do not have the luxury of traveling across the city at midday to fill their bellies. So there is probably a place like Mutfak Dili a few steps from any row of shops. But delicious food and – for an esnaf lokantası – the wonderful ambiance make Mutfak Dili well worth the trek.
*In Istanbul, the shopkeepers and small businessmen are such prolific eaters that they have a class of restaurant all their own: esnaf lokantaları, or tradesmen’s restaurants. But to most people, the term means a cheap, tasty and fast lunch, in the same way that “truck stop” is code for a greasy but filling breakfast. And just as surely as a roadside diner on the interstate will be filled with truckers eating ham and eggs, around lunchtime esnaf lokantaları are buzzing with hungry shopkeepers.
Address: Tersane Caddesi, Ziyalı Sokak 10, Perşembe Pazarı/Karaköy
(photo by Yigal Schleifer)