We agree wholeheartedly with the advice of EatingAsia : “If you’re parking yourself here [in Istanbul] for more than a few days, find ‘your’ esnaf lokantası .” To this we would like to add, “But if you live in Istanbul, find ‘your’ esnaf lokantası in every neighborhood of the city.”
Take the example of the Bayrampaşa district, not the sort of place you want to be in around lunchtime without a reliable tip. In this neighborhood, the streets are wide, most of the buildings look like public ministries and the roar of the E5 highway is ever-present – in short, this is not an ideal area for casual culinary exploration on foot. But Bayrampaşa has industry (and one of Istanbul’s two Ikea’s) and where there are workers, there is sure to be a good esnaf lokantası.
We followed a lead from a man on the street to a small cluster of shops with a couple of restaurants among them. From there our instinct led us straight to Durak Lokantası.
Nothing but hunger can prepare you for what awaits inside of this small esnaf lokantası. This is a restaurant stripped down like a Harley to the bare essentials, and it is just loud. On one recent visit, sawdust underfoot and the fog of a dozen simmering menu items greeted us at the door. As we lingered by the steam table considering our choices, customers continually bumped past to pay and leave, enter and find a seat. Lacking a bell to smack, a cook howled for pick-up and pounded a stainless steel counter with the ham of his hand. Finally, we were physically shown to a spot at a table filled with other diners. This is no place to linger.
Peaking on lunch-rush adrenaline, Ahmet Bey, the waiter here for the last 20 years, rattled off the day’s offerings loudly: “İslim kebabı – very nice; kapuska – very nice; kuzu tandır – famous; güveç, döner. Get the islim kebabı, okay?”
We agreed to the islim kebabı and the kapuska, having spotted this delicious looking dish of shredded cabbage au jus garnished with roughly chopped dried red peppers on our way in.
There is not much of a wait between the moment that your order is placed and when it is set in front of you. Through the manic hubbub of the open kitchen all we heard was a deep slurp of soup-drinking and the crackle of bread-tearing – the sound of people eating with purpose. While we were there, most patrons hadn’t even bothered taking their winter coats and hats off for the meal, as if they were squeezing a full meal into a ten-minute cigarette break.
İslim kebabı is the result of what might happen if a sushi chef were sent to work at a Turkish esnaf lokantası for a day – a predictable assembly of local stew ingredients with unexpected architecture. A stew of tender beef, peas, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes was artfully enveloped inside two long slices of sautéed eggplant and bound by a toothpick and a crown of tomato at the top. It was as tasty as it was dainty.
But don’t wait for any stylish presentation when it comes to kapuska. The name, which rhymes with babushka, reminded us of Eastern European stuffed cabbage, without the fuss of rolling them up. This is home-cooked food at its finest and most affordable. A full meal costs less than 10 TL.
Before finding Durak Lokantası, a lunch in Bayrampaşa meant Ikea köfte (meatballs) with lingonberry jam. But we try to make every meal count. A lunch at Durak is well worth scurrying over a couple of medians and up an exit ramp.
Address: Tuna Caddesi 27, Bayrampaşa
(photo by Ansel Mullins)