Thanks for the great question. We’ve ourselves been curious about Hamdi, which we haven’t been to in ages, so we asked the intrepid “Meliz,” a frequent Istanbul Eats guest poster, to check things out over there. Her report, based on some recent visits, is below…..
There was a time, in sort-of-recent memory, when Hamdi Restaurant was a hole-in-the-wall kebab joint, overlooking a lot filled with choking and coughing city buses, surrounded by the sort of passengers that, as often as not, might have a chicken or two stuffed in their bags. The reputation Hamdi enjoys today is rooted in those days, when they made great kebabs from high-quality meat, the service was solemn but unpretentious and Hamdi Bey himself kept everyone in line, including the guests.
The dusty lot has been replaced with a tidy paved piazza, the bus station displaced by modern sculpture and the bus routes have been largely rerouted away from the heart of the old city, but Hamdi Restaurant remains, albeit in a much fancier form. Which is not to say it is a travesty, per se. Just that it now requires a bit of savvy, a bit of navigation, to avoid the tiger pits and get the best out of the experience.
When you call (or have your hotel call) to make your reservation, which you MUST DO, be sure to be very explicit about reserving a table on the terrace, and if possible, a table right by the windows. And when you arrive, insist firmly but politely on getting the sort of table you reserved. I will say it again. INSIST. This word will recur here with some frequency.
Also, when you call, which you will do at least one day in advance, place an order for KATMER. More on this later, the point here being that this is an amazing treat that must be ordered a day ahead of time.
Key point: Make a very specific reservation, hold them to it and pre-order katmer.
As soon as one sits down at Hamdi, a waiter will load the table with a number of appetizer/salad things that have not been explicitly ordered. You are not obligated to eat/pay for any of these items, and if you insist (see?), the waiter will remove them. That said, several of the automatic mezes are quite tasty, so go ahead and pick one or two to keep, if you are so moved.
Key point: Do not just stare balefully at these unwelcome plates. Keep what you want and SEND BACK the rest.
At most restaurants, alcohol is a big upsell item. Hamdi is no different in this regard. The best way to avoid trouble is to order from the price-listed menu, and make sure that what you chose is what they serve you, both in terms of brand and amount. If it is not, do not feel that you must accept just because they cracked open the bottle. The difference in brands, with wine and rakı especially, can mean a rather stunning difference in price. So insist on what you want, and do not feel pressured or rushed into accepting something else. If they tell you what you ordered is unavailable, ask for the menu and pick something else.
Key point: Pay close attention to the brand and amount you are ordering, and make 100% sure that is what you end up with.
The menu at Hamdi has a number of standards that they generally do well: I always go for their içli köfte, little lahmacun, spicy çiğ köfte and a few cold mezes that suit my mood. There is one special hot meze that is basically cheese in hot water. It is delicious, but they do not flaunt it on the menu – if you ask for the cheese in hot water, that ought to be clear enough for your waiter. They also have a broad selection of kebabs to choose from, the fıstık (pistachio), hash-hash (poppy seed) and patlıcan (eggplant) kebabs being the three standouts. That said, Hamdi still uses high-quality meat, so whichever kebab you choose is likely to be above average.
As mentioned above, order what you want, off the menu (or, if off the meze tray, ask prices), and make sure you get only what you ordered. No need to be shy about the stray salad that shows up with your kebab course, or the extra portion of whatever. Just insist, politely, that they remove it.
Key point: This is getting repetitive, no?
Fair warning: dinner at Hamdi is not going to be the most intimate and rewarding service experience you have in Turkey. That said, it is a busy place, and the indifferent service is nothing personal. No need to stew over it. Take your lead from the Turkish customers you see – be unabashedly vocal if you need something, but do make sure you have a big smile on your face when you let loose with your preferred version of “Woo-hoo! Over here!”
Key point: The squeaky wheel gets the grease, but you catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar.
An unusual (in Istanbul) after-dinner treat is available at Hamdi: mirra. The mirra guy is a free agent who comes through later in the evening, serving up teeny cups of a coffee beverage that requires further explanation, if not an FDA warning. Mirra is Turkish coffee boiled down to its platonic essence, with a little cardamom added. By the time you meet mirra, it has the consistency of syrup, and will stain porcelain if left to sit. It is also a guaranteed way to sober up after a long rakı-fueled meal (thus the “later in the evening” service). Some mirra etiquette: the man will serve in order of oldest to youngest, and one is expected to drink two cups (he pours very little at a time, don’t worry). Good manners predicate that you look into the eyes of the person serving you when you drink the mirra, and that you hand the cup directly back to him when done.
Key mirra point: Do not set the cups down on the table!
The view from the terrace is both famous and lovely. Really nice. Romantic, even. But the best reason, in my book, to go to Hamdi for dinner, is the aforementioned katmer. Katmer can mean many different things to different people, and at some point soon, we will devote an entire entry to it. For now, I will say this: at Hamdi, the katmer served is layered pastry “leaves” (a mysterious thinner-spreading pastry dough), filled with pistachio paste and a smear of kaymak, drizzled with simple syrup and baked. It is as amazing and decadent as it sounds.
I would love to leave off on this sweet note, but there is one last caveat. Pore over your bill, and do not be ashamed to ask about any and all items that you do not understand, with the manager, if need be.
So. Hamdi serves up above-average kebabs, with a stunner of a view and they offer katmer and mirra. So they have that going for them! But if you decide to go there, just keep our advice in mind.
Address: Kalçın Sokak 15 (on the open square to the right of the Spice Bazaar), Eminönü
Web: www.hamdi.com.tr