In the rapidly developing Istanbul district of Beyoglu, a new concept restaurant is born everyday – Korean fried chicken, construct your own canapé, a restaurant claiming to serve the widest variety soups in the world, etc. If a place makes it past infancy, pirated versions of the original are sure to follow. The market is thriving and those who live, work or play in Beyoglu drive it with an insatiable appetite for something new.
But even as the average Beyoglu working stiff profile shifts from a spackle-spattered demographic to one which smells of L’Occitane products, certain dietary habits never change. It might as well be written in the Turkish constitution that all working people are entitled to an inexpensive lunch of daily specials roughly estimating the home-cooked meals that mom prepares. This is the right of the esnaf, or tradesmen.
Whereas the traditional esnaf lokantasi has a standard interior design – one we associate with a hastily built hospital cafeteria – and a staff and clientele that remind us of an American diner, these days we are noticing a pleasant new trend in the esnaf lokantasi tradition. Without straying too far from the typical esnaf offerings, a new class of restaurant has emerged adding more creature comforts to traditional Turkish comfort food, something we are calling “Esnaf Nouveau.”
Take the example of the charming Golge, a small restaurant/café located on an athmospheric Beyoglu back alley. Though exposed steel beams, nostalgic tiles and thick wooden tables might be the signature of chic places like House Café, theirs is a mere forgery of the Golge aesthetic. Ten years ago, when Golge was opened by a stylish husband and wife team, there were plenty of esnaf lokantasi around, but none that looked and felt like this place.
Golge was also one of the first to bring home-style esnaf favorites into a mellow café setting. The daily specials often include a thicker-than-usual cacik, or chopped cucumbers in garlicky yogurt, a mound of moist, red bulgur pilav and something slow-roasted and delicious. On a recent visit, the chalkboard promised specials such as roasted chicken over begendi, a creamy eggplant puree, or vegetables in a clay pot. Though esnaf lokantasi purists might recoil at the cheesecake on offer, the gullaç, a traditional Ramazan milk pudding flavored by rose water, is the real deal.
Taking the cue from Esnaf Nouveau standards like Golge, the newly opened Dai Pera has upped the ante by adding alcohol, with a strong focus on Turkish wines, to an otherwise conservative menu. On one recent visit we had a plate of very credible green beans stewed with chopped veal alongside a pile of buttery rice flecked with thin, dark erişte noodles. We couldn’t resist the kadin budu köfte, a batter-coated and fried meat patty thought to resemble ladies thighs. The vine leaves stuffed with rice and meat were standouts. We didn’t consult the sommelier about the appropriate wine pairing for this feast, but we can attest that a cold Efes beer worked out just fine.
Along with the home-cooked traditional specials, the new school esnaf restaurants understand that a tradesman wants lunch fast and at a good price. Daily menus rarely exceed 20 TL and, in a pinch, could be gobbled down in a hurried half hour lunch break.
Address: Olivia gecidi 7, Galatasaray
Address: Yeni Çarşı Caddesi No 54, Galatasaray
(photo by Ansel Mullins)