(Editor’s Note: Sadly, Tunçlar has closed down due to a redevelopment project in Taksim Square. Our news story about the venue’s closing is here .)
From the top of Elmadağ Caddesi in Harbiye, an unbroken line of tiny Ottoman-era row houses spills down the steep slope of the street. It is one of our favorite Istanbul streetscapes, evoking a rarely heralded image of 19th-century working-class Beyoğlu. Though “Ottoman” is a qualifier that usually refers to splendor in the extreme – vast domes, silk carpets, golden thrones – there was just one Sultan and so many humble subjects. Likewise, Ottoman palace cuisine, like the Baccarat crystal banisters at Dolmabahçe, is an interesting anecdote, but we find the search for Ottoman proletarian fare much more intriguing.
The medieval Ottoman travel writer Evliya Çelebi wrote of Beyoğlu streets filled with humble little stew and dolma restaurants, bustling at lunchtime with merchants getting a fill. He counted more than five hundred of them. Surveying today’s culinary landscape for its Ottoman roots, the eyes fall directly on the esnaf lokantası, or tradesmen’s restaurants, that now serve the working man much as they have for centuries. If Evliya Çelebi were walking the streets of Istanbul today, hungry, we are sure he’d feel perfectly at home at Tunçlar Lokantası on Elmadağ Caddesi.
Like most esnaf lokantası in the area, Tunçlar is packed with regulars during the lunch rush. The single waiter hustles food out from the open kitchen at the back and the boss mans the register and a bank of telephones at the front. Specials change daily, from stuffed zucchini under a blanket of thick yogurt (kabak dolması) to an excellent moussaka, as well as white beans over rice and stuffed cabbage leaves – this is unfiltered home food. At Tunçlar the bread is also notable – whole-wheat loaves studded with sunflower seeds. From the grill we had chicken thighs with fresh-cut french fries and chased the whole meal down with a house specialty, kabak tatlısı, or stewed pumpkin sprinkled with crushed walnuts.
The post-meal discussion turned to the five hundred or so proto-esnaf lokantası that Çelebi visited back in the 16th century. How many had we been to in Beyoğlu alone and how many had we missed? Then we caught a glimpse of the exhausted waiter in a daze of his own. The rear windows by the kitchen are covered in a trompe l’oeil sticker of a Hawaiian beach scene – a silhouette of a sunbathing hardbody backlit by the afternoon sun, palm trees leaning down to kiss a crystal blue sea. There’s something that surely hasn’t changed since Ottoman times: a waiter’s dream of vacation.
Address: Elmadağ Caddesi 9, Elmadağ
(photo by Ansel Mullins)