The meyhane is a quintessential Istanbul experience. Downing bottomless glasses of rakı over meze and enduring the comfortable claustrophobia of outdoor seating in Nevizade are cornerstones of local drinking culture. In recent years, however, a new breed of meyhane has risen. Hip and yet utterly familiar, these delightful hybrids are part old-form tavern, part contemporary eatery. You can still find haydari and rakı on the menu, but these mutant meyhanes also serve wine and whip up adventurous revisions of the standard meze inventory. Like Istanbul, these hybrids take the best of the old to create something novel and new.
Münferit: Living up to its name, neo-meyhane Münferit truly is one of a kind.This dimly-lit, delicious Beyoğlu crowd-puller boasts a dual reputation as daytime foodie magnet and after-hours “it” spot for Istanbul’s young, beautiful, transnational crowd. Located on a downward sloping street behind the opulent Galatasaray High School in Beyoğlu, Münferit rises out of the uneven cobblestones with gray, art-deco severity. A low-lit, wood paneled interior is all faux antiquity without the accompanying pretension. Here, the alcohol flows easy, but none so easily as rakı. A selection of red and white wines is a heady alternative to the classic meyhane cup. The seafood aficionado should sample their steaming calamari on a bed of black pearl couscous seasoned wit squid ink. For an after-dinner sweet, indulge in the çikolatalı lokma, a Turkish-style donut with chocolate. With an outstanding kitchen and hopping bar, Münferit is the dining destination for refined palettes or the party-hearty set.
Karaköy Lokantası: Heralded as the Karaköy’s culinary capstone, Karaköy Lokantası’s design and décor project a modern façade on a very down-home establishment. A tradesmen’s tuck-in by day and Turkish tavern by night, Karaköy Lokantası serves up a classic meze tray, among which the eggplant salad and muammara (a spicy paste made with walnuts, garlic, red pepper paste, and bread crumbs) come recommended. Of the meat and fish dishes, a general consensus has emerged around the divinely tender charred octopus, universally acknowledged as the dinner menu’s standout. Proprietor Oral Kurt often wanders the floor, seating and guiding guests through their extensive menu. Karaköy’s hungry, humble, and hip flock to this dockside tavern-cum-brasserie.
9 Ece Aksoy: Perched on an Asmalımescit corner, this intimate dining room presents the flavors of Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. Veteran restaurateur Ece Aksoy is the mighty engine that drives this delicious enterprise, buying, cooking, and managing the business herself. Locavore doesn’t even begin to describe Aksoy’s commitment to quality; a Trakyan homestead provides beef and lamb, while the produce for her zeytinyağlılar (olive oil dishes) is grown in Bolu. One-hundred percent seasonal, Aksoy’s menu adheres to her mother’s gastronomic injunctions: “eat the vegetables that drink in the sun” in the summer and “eat the vegetables that kiss the snow” in winter. To accent a plate of hot or cold seasonal starters, an impressive wine list of French, American, and Turkish presses put the “neo” in this meyhane. The novice rakı drinker will enjoy the finer notes of up-market labels as well as the classics. 9 Ece Aksoy is a treasure of authenticity and warmth, where diners come hungry and leave tipsy.
Meze by Lemon Tree: Located across from the commanding Pera Palace Hotel, this modest meyhane’s forte isn’t hard to predict. Chefs Gencay and Gulabi execute their imaginative meze spread with a flourish. Although the daily offering varies, their made-to-order salads serve as light bases to richer starters. A virtuoso with the skillet, Gencay often pops out from the kitchen to elaborate on the evening’s menu along with his attentive wait staff. Meze by Lemon Tree is bliss for the appetizer aficionados, sidestepping clichés and serving up offbeat meyhane fare with panache.
Lokanta Maya: Fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients lend lightness and tang to chef Didem Şenol’s Aegean fare at Lokanta Maya. Daily zeytinyağlı dishes and soups are scrawled on a blackboard, and a simple lunch menu gives way to a heavier, meze-centered dinner. Shifting with the whims of the weather, this kitchen’s dependence on nature’s caprice is complete: its scorns the frozen and the packaged, as well as beet sugar and immature swordfish. Bread from Bolu and olive oil from Marmaris compete for table room with vases of fresh cut flowers, set upon rustic, hewn wood tables. Its organic, minimalist design concept is best exemplified by a wall of walnuts suspended behind chicken wire. Feast on a plate of mücver, crunchy vegetable patties served with a yogurt-mint-cucumber sauce, or Black Sea classic hamsi, corn flour-fried sardines with lemony, dill-sprinkled aioli. The house lemonade is a wonder meal companion or summer substitute for dessert.