Istanbul’s first Design Biennial, taking place between October 13 and December 12, will be held at two venues: Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul’s first private museum dedicated to showcasing and promoting Turkish contemporary art, and the Galata Greek Primary School, the former location of a now-obsolete minority school. As you delve into the world of design in this beautifully- contrasting city, stop by these cafés and restaurants, all located in close proximity to the Biennial venues, for lunch, brunch, or dinner.
Around Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
Located on a small street behind the Karaköy shipping docks right next to Lokanta Maya, Karaköy Lokantası is an esnaf lokantası (tradesmen’s restaurant) by day and meyhane (Turkish tavern) by night. Housed in a beautiful, old building and spread over two floors, the restaurant’s interior is quite unique, featuring checkered floors and a wrought iron staircase that carries a very modern feel, sprinkled with an Ottoman touch, walls covered with turquoise tiles. The lunch menu changes daily, but always focuses on classic Turkish dishes. The smooth eggplant purée and the tender liver (which is often available in the evenings, too) are two of the highlights. Those longing for a home-cooked dish would enjoy the etli lahana dolması (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat). Of the meze (Turkish-style tapas) display, the eggplant salad and muhammara (a spicy paste made with walnuts, garlic, red pepper paste, and bread crumbs) come recommended. The divinely supple charred octopus is one of the dinner menu’s standouts. The restaurant is always filled with in-the-know Istanbulites and Karaköy frequenters, whom owner Oral Kurt often guides and seats himself. Reservations are a must, especially for dinner.
Fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients define chef Didem Şenol’s Turkish fare, Lokanta Maya offers a very chic and modern atmosphere with light and tasty contemporary Turkish dishes that change daily. Although the majority of dishes on the menu are inspired by Aegean and Mediterranean cuisines, the menu is varied enough to include specialties from other regions of Turkey, such as hamsi (anchovy) from the Black Sea Region. Daily zeytinyağlı (olive oil) dishes and specials are scrawled on a blackboard, and the friendly waiters are more than happy to help you make a decision. The lunch menu is lighter compared to the dinner menu, which, while being meze- centered, offers a variety of mains, such as marinated chicken, caramelized sea bass, schnitzel, and linguini. The décor is quite minimal, one of the highlights being the wall fixture of walnuts encased with wire. The rustic, hewn wood tables are topped with white table cloths and adorned with vases of fresh cut flowers. Although the menu changes constantly, the mücver, crunchy vegetable patties served with a yogurt-mint-cucumber sauce, is often available for lunch as well as dinner, and is a must-try.
A charcuterie lover’s paradise, Namlı Gurme is a shop and a restaurant all in one. Inviting displays of cured meat, sausages, local as well as imported cheeses, jams, nuts, olives, breads, olive oil dishes, smoked fish, mezes, and more is waht makes Namlı Gurme so appealing. Stop by this gem for breakfast, and prepare your own plate that you can enjoy while watching the sea and the vapur (ferry) approach the Karaköy dock. In addition to the displayed selection, you can also order the Turkish breakfast specialty menemen (scrambled eggs with tomato and pepper).
Julius Meinl is certainly the most talked- about Karaköy establishment of the past year. This European-style coffee house of Austrian origin features a retro- style décor of checkered floors, stacks of coffee beans, nostalgic posters, and a cozy atmosphere ideal for a coffee break.
The two-story shop is quite spacious. Soothing music plays in the background and sunlight beams through the windows as the delicious aroma of coffee tickles your senses. The second floor; which features hardwood floors, colorful carpets, warm navy-blue walls, and hanging lamps; has a much calmer atmosphere than the entrance floor, and the tables here are often occupied by individuals reading the latest issue of The New Yorker or the Monocle, which is available to browse through. Downstairs is more social, with tables mostly occupied by small groups chatting over their drinks. The coffee selection here is wide and varied, and includes interesting options like Wiener Melange, a cappuccino-like coffee made with mild beans, steamed milk, and foam. Although the menu features a few snacks, the highlight here is the dessert list. Just ask your friendly waiter to help you choose between the brownie, the apple pie, or the sacher torte (Austrian chocolate cake). Remember to take a look at their tea menu as well, which offers exciting flavors like Mohr Red (made with strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and cloves) and Mohr Blossom (made with rose petals, vanilla, orange, and jasmine).
Flocked by locals as well as tourists, Fasuli is a humble tradesmen’s restaurant that serves as an ideal stop for a quick and budget-friendly lunch. Fasuli specializes in kuru fasulye and pilav (beans and rice); the beans are slowly cooked in a special sauce in copper pots, and served sizzling hot, perfectly paired with a serving of rice and a dollop of yogurt. The menu focuses on Eastern Black Sea Region specialties, such as hemşin mıhlaması (a hot dish made of melted cheese, corn flour, and butter) and karalahana sarması (stuffed kale), and all the main ingredients are brought from their respective places of origin, such as rice from Gönen, lentils from Gaziantep, meat from Uşak, butter from Vakfikebir, and telpeyniri (a type of cheese) from Trabzon. You’ ll also find a range of soups, such as lentil and kale, olive oil dishes, and grilled meats. Desserts include tel kadayıf (shredded wheat in syrup), baklava, and laz böreği (another Black Sea region specialty, which is a layered pastry with a creamy filling).
Istanbul Modern Café
Located in Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul Modern Café befits its location with a contemporary design. Located on the second floor of the museum, the café offers a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus and the Old City. Its inventive menu features hot and cold appetizers, seafood, pasta, and meat dishes. Although it may get crowded due to its proximity to the Biennial location, this upscale restaurant is perfect for lunch and dinner.
Tarihi Karaköy Balıkçısı
One of the oldest and most well-known establishments in the Karaköy neighborhood, Tarihi Karaköy Balıkçısı is a fish restaurant that has been open since 1923. Two separate atmospheres are housed in the same historical building. On the one hand, the restaurant’s first two floors provide a casual space that is open for lunch between noon and 3pm. On the other hand, the top floor has a more opulent environment, and is open for dinner only. This is a more contemporary space, featuring patterned floors and tables covered with white tablecloths. A phenomenal view of the Old City through the large windows encircles diners who are presented with deliciously fresh fish. Many consider the hearty fish soup served here to be the best in the city, while the succulent kağıtta levrek (sea bass cooked in paper) is another highlight.
Around Galata Greek Primary School
Located on the top floor of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (IKSV) building, X Restaurant is an ideal dinner spot, featuring a panoramic view of the Golden Horn and the Old City, an intimate atmosphere, and a modern fusion menu of Turkish and Mediterranean fare. The venue is quite stylish, suitable to a restaurant affiliated with IKSV. The terrace is a great spot to enjoy the view while having a drink before or after dinner.
Le Fumoir is the bar/restaurant/lobby of Georges Hotel, neatly tucked behind wrought iron doors and purple velvet curtains on Galata’s most stylish street, Serdar-ı Ekrem. This charming restaurant specializes in French home-cooking and, although the menu is modest, it is filled with classics like onion soup, boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, entrecote, sea bass tartare, and salad with camembert and coriander. The wine list is packed with selections from France and a few alternatives from Turkey. The brick walls, brown leather couches, white table runners, and dim lighting blends together to create a chic and elegant atmosphere. Le Fumoir is ideal for lunch or dinner, or just for drinks at the champagne bar. Reservations are a must, especially for dinner.
Also located on Serdar-ı Ekrem, Mavra is a cozy and casual restaurant that is filled with tourists, expats, and locals alike. Mavra’s menu is quite diverse and interesting, featuring Turkish, Mexican, and Italian specialties. Of the mains, which rely heavily on meat, with one selection being a hard-to- find sausage, the kapalı zarf, a closed tortilla of sautéed vegetables, melted cheddar cheese, and chicken, and mütevazi, a simple pasta dish made with tomatoes, olives, cheese, and basil, are standouts. Not just a lunch or a casual dinner spot, this restaurant is also a design shop selling toys, pillows, board games, and objects by local and international designers and brands.
A tourist’s dream come true, Kiva is a lunch and dinner spot located right by the foot of the Galata Tower, offering a sight that is hard to find elsewhere. The menu specializes in traditional Anatolian dishes from various parts of Turkey, with a particular focus on the East and Southeast regions. The restaurant has a large, smart indoor dining area with displays of home-made jams and pekmez (grape molasses), while its dynamic menu features over a dozen kinds of soup and even more varieties of stew, casserole, sarma and dolma (stuffed vegetable dishes), as well as classic Turkish comfort foods like karnıyarık (eggplant filled with minced meat), and a profusion of salads and appetizers like hummus, muhammara, and baba ghanoush.
Located just steps away from the Galata Tower at the entrance of the popular Serdar-ı Ekrem street, Fürreyya is a small, no-frills seafood restaurant, where lunch or dinner can be enjoyed at one of the few tables or barstools. Although it appears more like a fast- food joint than a seafood restaurant, Fürreyya offers budget-friendly, flavorful, and fresh seafood dishes in an atmosphere that is clean, modern, and minimal. The menu features seasonal fish, prepared to your liking, either grilled over charchoal or lightly fried. The delicately crispy fried calamari, the balık köfte (fish croquette), and the güveç dishes (hearty fish cooked in a rich tomato sauce in earthenware pots) come highly recommended. If you’re in for a quick bite, the deliciously surprising fish wrap called dürüm, made with grilled seasonal fish, caramelized onions, and arugula, is worth a try.
Taj Mahal is one of the few restaurants in Istanbul to offer authentic, healthy, and high-quality Indian food. The restaurant benefits from a great location, situated right by the stairs that connect Tünel to Şişhane. The menu, prepared by Pakistani chef Zia Mehmood, features most classic Indian favorites, such as samosa, pakora, tikka masala, and tarka dhal, as well a wide selection of other vegetarian and meat dishes, such as the delicious lamb korma, kashmiri lamb chops (chops boiled in milk and then fried with spices), as well as crowd- pleasing dahls, curries, and rice.
A relatively new addition to the Pera district, Gram is the second restaurant venture of chef Didem Şenol, the owner of Lokanta Maya in Karaköy. Gram offers quite a different concept than its Karaköy counterpart, making its mark in Pera as an informal lunch spot. It offers a daily buffet of cold starters and mains that change on a regular basis, and that are prepared by chefs behind a counter right by the wooden communal tables. The food here can be categorized as inventive, contemporary Turkish, with such dishes as yeşil elmalı kısır (burghul salad with green apple shavings) and enginarlı yeşil erikli semizotu salatası (purslane salad with artichoke and greengage). A bakery section entices those with a sweet tooth, displaying a range of delicious pastries by the storefront window.
What to Order
In addition to the recommended dishes listed under each restaurant, it’s always good to remember what’s fresh in season while ordering. September is the best time for eggplant and zucchini, while October is the time to enjoy the freshest pumpkin, mushrooms, and spinach. Fall is a great time for fish, and September is especially ideal for sardines, swordfish, and bonito. The selection is broadest in October, which is a perfect time to enjoy all types of fish.