Lokanta have a rich place in the Turkish narrative, offering homey food, a convivial atmosphere and a cornerstone to many communities. Take a peek into the past of these hallowed institutions, and explore a few in Istanbul.
A nation’s language is a deeper part of its identity than superficial changes in art, music, or fashion. Another cultural constant is food, recipes passed down from generation to generation. So why do Istanbul’s eateries describe themselves with French loanwords such as büfe and restoran—what happened to the Turkish word for restaurant?
The answer is, simply, that there was no Turkish word with that exact meaning. Ottoman religious complexes and Sufi lodges would distribute food from a kitchen called an aşevi, but this was more like a catering service or soup kitchen. Until the 19th century, the Ottomans were not familiar with paying for food among strangers in a public place. A major change in Istanbul’s food culture came in the late Ottoman era, when the lokanta—from the Italian word locanda—developed around the European embassies and offices in Fatih and Beyoğlu.
Whereas the root word of restaurant promises to “restore” an individual back to health, locanda refers to a “guest house,” similar to an inn. Their purpose is to serve the local community of traders and artisans – traditionally only men – with simple but nutritious dishes at lunchtime, as the customers would eat breakfast and dinner at home.
Fresh and healthy
Photographer Rıza Erdeğirmenci’s book Lokanta delves into the cuisine, aesthetic, and philosophy of the lokanta. In the face of fast food chains with international finance behind them, Erdeğirmenci wants us to support the lokanta as a healthier way of eating with a better view on life.
“When we think about the lokanta, we might say it’s not very fashionable, not well designed, doesn’t have nice furniture, and it’s a place for lower-class people,” he told The Guide Istanbul. “But that has nothing to do with it. It’s very authentic, the food is very tasty and traditional – based on vegetables and olive oil. Everything is cooked daily in the morning and they close in the afternoon when there’s nothing more to serve.”
One of the defining features of lokanta food is the use of large metal pots in a stove lined with firebricks, like a pizza oven. When the dish is half-cooked, the chef cuts the heat and allows the firebricks to slowly simmer the pot to perfection.
While restaurants serving local produce have become fashionable in the West, the working people of Istanbul have been eating this way out of necessity for hundreds of years. Lokanta owners buy their ingredients from local markets, who in turn buy from local producers, making a lokanta meal both fresh and more environmentally friendly. This also has clear nutritional benefits. “Nowadays I see more and more ladies going to lokantas—it’s because you can eat diet food there. All dieticians recommend vegetables cooked in olive oil. And you can make a chef’s plate by choosing two or three things and putting them together,” Erdeğirmenci explains.
The neighborhood spirit
In his section of the book, writer Umur Talu sums up the neighborly spirit of the lokanta, “You go to a restaurant as three or four people but you feel alone at the table. You go to a lokanta alone and suddenly you’re surrounded by people who start to talk.” At a busy lokanta, you might share a table with locals of all trades and social backgrounds. But these are not the places of anonymity that restaurants can sometimes be—if you visit a lokanta regularly, the waiters will remember your name and your favorite dishes. The main principle of the lokanta is that you should feel at home.
Like the kitchens of the Ottoman religious foundations, the lokanta is also an institution that holds the local community together, making sure the most needy can have a warm meal. “In Anatolia, if a very poor man comes into the lokanta and the owner knows him, he gives him a bowl of soup,” says Erdeğirmenci. “After the man has left, the owner says to the customers, ‘We all paid for this,’ and adds a bowl of hot water to the pot.”
Although Turkey’s lokanta culture was historically concentrated in the European side of Istanbul, there are old and renowned lokantas on the Asian side and farther into Anatolia. One of the restaurants mentioned in Erdeğirmenci’s book opened its doors 136 years ago in Boyabat, a district in the Black Sea region. But for the sheer number of famous lokantas within walking distance of each other, Istanbul is the best place to start a culinary tour.
Istanbul’s lokantas with pedigree
Located on a narrow street in the Asmalımescit neighborhood, Şahin Lokantası was opened in 1967 by Müslim Şahin and then passed down to his nephew, İsmail Şahin – who now works alongside his sons Nazmi Şahin and Mehmet Şahin. Despite its limited space, Şahin Lokantası is one of the best-known lokantas in Istanbul, so you might have to wait a few minutes for a seat. But the irresistible smells wafting from the small corner kitchen make the wait worthwhile.
Chef Ali Geyik has been mastering his art since the age of 12 and has now worked at Şahin for thirty years. The restaurant has been buying its ingredients from the same butcher and greengrocer for half a century, and the dishes are based on seasonal produce. Depending on time of year, diners can enjoy vegetable dishes such as green beans in olive oil, chard and cabbage dolma, kapuska, or stuffed squash, peppers, and tomatoes. Meat dishes include grilled köfte, kadınbudu köfte (a mince and rice mixture coated in fried batter), Albanian-style liver, boiled veal, grilled chicken cutlets, and talaş kebabı (fried lamb, onion, and tomato in a pastry crust). Classic soups made with yogurt, vegetables, chicken, and lentils are always on the menu, while in the winter offal-based soups join the menu. Open Mon-Sat, 9am-5:30pm; Orhan Adli Apaydın Sokak No.11/A, Tepebaşı; T: (0212) 244 25 43
Closer to Taksim is another classic lokanta, Lades Restaurant. The original location when this lokanta opened in 1969 was on Tarlabaşı Bulvarı, and it moved to the current spot in 1986. With two floors and more tables than Şahin Lokantası, this might be a better option if you need to refuel quickly. One of the most-requested dishes here, and in fact one of the favorites at every lokanta, is tandoori lamb. When the vast majority of city-dwellers live in apartments, there is no way for them to bring the large clay oven used for tandoori dishes into their homes. Lades Restaurant serves its tender lamb with pureed potatoes, making this a very filling dish for its price. Open Monday to Saturday, 11.30am-9.30pm. Sadri Alışık Sokak No.14/A, Taksim; T: (0212) 251 32 03.
Although Karaköy is now seen as a seedy neighborhood undergoing gentrification, in the past it was the financial center of Istanbul. This is clear from the number of major banks here —a walk along Bankalar Caddesi takes you past the Republic of Turkey Central Bank, the magnificent Ottoman Imperial Bank building, Sümerbank, and İş Bankası. This explains the name of the nearby Bankalar Lokantası, where bank employees have been enjoying their midday meals since 1947.
A barrel vault roof and brick walls give this lokanta an atmospheric feel. Specialties on the menu include kadınbudu köfte and an Armenian dessert known as havidz. This thick, milk-based dessert topped with cinnamon powder is a very rare treat in Istanbul. On the way out, remember to ring the “satisfaction bell”—there are very few customers who don’t. Open Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm, closed on Sundays and public holidays; Perşembe Pazarı Caddesi No.5, Karaköy; T: (0212) 293 81 73
Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası
Across the Bosphorus, the neighborhood of Moda is more famous for its nightlife and boutiques than historic sites. But the oldest lokanta on this list is there – Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası, open since the year 1919. The lokanta’s founder came to Istanbul from the Greek city of Ionnina, called Yanya in Turkish. He employed a chef who had just retired from the Ottoman palace and began serving traditional food in Kadıköy. During the occupation of Istanbul from 1918-1923, Fehmi was taken prisoner by the British and almost died of disease before returning to his restaurant.
Fehmi’s restaurant continues under his children and grandchildren, presenting around one hundred different dishes every day. With a main dining room, an open-roofed area, and a connected section for desserts, this is a maze of Turkish cuisine. From cold olive-oil dishes to kebab varieties, fish, grilled meats, seasoned pilafs, pastries, and soups, it is worth arriving early to benefit from the full menu before it disappears. Open daily, 9am-10pm; Güneşli Bahçe Sokak No.1, Kadıköy; T: (0216) 336 33 33