(Editor’s Note: As 2011 heads to an end, we are looking back at our “Best Bites” of the year and are asking our readers to do the same and share their best Istanbul (or Turkey) eating moments with us. This submission comes from blogger and writer Jennifer Hattam whose explorations of Istanbul and Turkey can be read at her blog, The Turkish Life .)
Dinner at a meyhane should be the perfect night out: A table full of tasty little bites to share with friends, free-flowing alcohol, and boisterous neighbors getting up to sing and dance. What’s not to love? But while I enjoy a night on Nevizade as much as anyone, the meyhane experience in Istanbul too often has a whiff of the perfunctory. The samemeze, lacklusterly prepared. The same songs spurring what can feel like compulsory fun. The same squabbling over padded bills at the end of the night.
Fortunately, the meyhane blues is not an incurable condition. This year, three very different establishments reminded me why the meyhane night is such a beloved Turkish tradition.
In a culinary world where a different cut of kebab is often what passes for innovation, a menu full of the completely unfamiliar is a rare and precious find indeed. At the humble but cozy Black Sea meyhane Mohti  in Istanbul’s Asmalımescit neighborhood, every bite was bursting with fresh, new-to-me flavors (and, most of the time, hamsi): a savory pancake made from the little fish and shredded vegetables; a salad tossed with mint and hot peppers; hamsi-studded cornbread; a hot skillet of gooey cheese, butter, and cornmeal; and warm, custard-filled Laz böreği for dessert.
Other times, the same-old can be done so skillfully that it almost becomes new again. That’s the feeling I walked away with after a meal at Karaköy Lokantası , a packed two-story Istanbul restaurant done up in brilliant turquoise tiles. There’s nothing equally flashy about the food, but everything was so perfectly prepared, even this usually squeamish diner found herself going back for seconds of thinly sliced, roast-beef-like tongue and ever-so-delicately fried liver. Tangy squash blossoms stuffed with rice and pungent greens in olive oil carried with them a hint of Aegean sea air.
On an actual visit to the Aegean, a friend I was staying with in the seaside town of Ayvalık dismissed any thought of a waterfront meal, instead leading me down the cobblestone backstreets to Hüsnü Baba’nın Yeri. The interior of “Father Hüsnü’s Place” is faded and rather glaringly lit; far better to grab a table in the alley, underneath hanging vines, and let the friendly staff cover it with small plates – stuffed mussels redolent of the ocean, garlicky samphire, perfectly cooked calamari and zucchini fritters, all cheap as can be, and served until late. This, I think, is the meyhane stripped down to its essentials: good food, good hospitality, and a rakı or three. That’s a recipe that will never get old.
Hüsnü Baba’nın Yeri
Tenekeciler Sokağı 16
(0266) 312 87 14