An iconic part of the city’s social and cultural history, Beyti restaurant has a special place in the heart of every Istanbulite. It owes everything to its exceptional owner, Beyti Güler, whose long memories of the city make him a unique chronicler.
By Zeynep Ardağ
Photos courtesy of Beyti Güler
Beyti Güler is the only living Turk to have a kebab named in his honor. The flavor and texture of the grilled lamb fillets wrapped in lavaş (flatbread) and served with tomato sauce and yogurt is something that should be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
Güler has been arguably Turkey’s greatest kebab restaurateur for several decades; British author Lord Kinross described Beyti restaurant as having the “best meat in Europe,” and Güler was the first Turkish member of the prestigious Chaine des Rotisseurs international gastronomy association. He has also been a witness to Istanbul’s history, meeting many important figures along the way.
Güler was born in Romania in 1929 into a family with Crimean roots. The entire family immigrated to Istanbul in 1934. “We arrived in Küçükçekmece, a suburb of Istanbul, in a coach pulled by two horses,” Güler told The Guide Istanbul. “During those years, all the buses, trucks, and horse carriages that came from Thrace to Istanbul had to pass through Küçükçekmece, therefore my father thought it was a good place for commerce and bought a little bakery shop there right on the day we arrived.”
As a kid, Güler worked in the bakery and later in a grocery store owned by his father. He used to sell melons and watermelons after school across from the train station. “By then Florya was a summer excursion spot and Istanbulites were coming here on trains run by a French company before the Turkish state railways took over. Every train used to arrive full and people were going for a swim during the day and in the evenings they were sitting in the gardens. Some would bring gramophones and music used to fill the air. It was a very lively atmosphere,” he recalled.
Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, used to spend his summers in Florya and has a special place in Güler’s childhood memories. Güler’s eyes still shine as he remembers how Atatürk used to pass by during his daily walks and smile at him as he sold his watermelons. Güler also recalls how his family were once granted special permission to watch a military parachute jumping show in a VIP lounge with Atatürk. When Atatürk stayed in Florya, all the groceries for his summer mansion were supplied by Güler’s father’s shop. The 1930s were good years for the Güler family and their businesses thrived, but when the World War II broke out their shop suffered from shortages and they decided to launch a new venture.
The Güler family opened a small restaurant in Küçükçekmece on April 2, 1945. This tiny place with only four tables and 20 seats was Güler’s first step into the culinary world; he helped run the restaurant with his father from the outset.
“We didn’t start this business thinking it would be a long term profession. Due to World War II, there was shortage of bread. The government had limited the bread sales; they allowed only 150 grams of bread for children and 300 grams for adults each day! So we started this business thinking that we could feed our stomachs with the leftovers,” Güler admits.
At first the restaurant served only beans, rice, okra, and rice pudding, and its customers were mostly locals. However, when British and American cars began to be imported to Turkey, and the number of car owners increased in the late 1940s, access to the outer suburb of Küçükçekmece became easier for Istanbulites. Küçükçekmece was home to an abattoir and several butchers selling high quality meat of sheep reared in the Thrace region. Soon it became a weekend destination for meat-loving city residents with cars.
The restaurant soon added grilled köfte, lamb chops, and döner to its menu. By then, there were only a few restaurants in Istanbul serving döner kebabs. “Üniversite Lokantası in Beyazıt, Konyalı, and another restaurant which was at the Spice Market, that I can’t recall its name, were the only restaurants serving döner at the time,” said Güler.
Güler also pioneered the serving of grilled beef. At that time in Turkey, beef was only used in the production of delicatessen products like sucuk, sausage, and salami. “When I visited Switzerland, at a famous butcher shop called Möller I saw that Europeans were eating veal steaks and veal chops, so when I came back I added them to the menu for the first time,” Güler explained. Beyti’s namesake kebab was also inspired by dishes created by Möller.
‘A meat oasis’
Güler’s popularity skyrocketed after an article by Burhan Felek, in Cumhuriyet newspaper calling the restaurant “A meat oasis in Küçükçekmece.” Soon he had to increase his capacity to 100 seats and then to 250 seats, but even that was not enough and queues formed at the door.
Celebrities and high ranking officials started to visit his restaurant. “Once I even had to keep the Turkish President of the time, Celal Bayar, waiting in front of the door in his car, just because the restaurant was full and there wasn’t any available table,” recalled Güler.
In 1960 Güler was asked to do the catering for a NATO meeting in Dolmabahçe Palace, serving dinner to NATO Secretary General Paul-Henri Spaak and some 600 other high ranking members: “I kept the entire fire department waiting outside Dolmabahçe Palace, just in case a spark from the charcoal grill started a fire.”
In the 1950s and 60s Güler was featured in the New York Herald Tribune, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. By the time he was ready to move his restaurant from Küçükçekmece to larger premises, his name was already a byword for Turkish grills in Istanbul and around the world.
Living the dream
After buying a large plot of land in Florya in the early 1970s, Güler proceeded to build a large restaurant to meet the growing demand. The grand opening took place in 1983, attended by the Turkish Prime Minister of the time, Turgut Özal; businessmen such as Vehbi Koç and Sakıp Sabancı; and many other important figures who had already been his customers for years.
His restaurant in Florya hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. A grandiose double staircase and eleven discrete dining halls with Ottoman tiles and Persian rugs creates a palatial feel. Framed photographs of Güler with some of the world’s greatest leaders adorn the walls, along with letters of thanks, testimonials, and culinary awards. Former US Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, American tycoon David Rockefeller, former Turkish presidents, and Hollywood celebrities such as Danny Kaye and Tom Selleck smile with Güler in black and white photographs that take you on a nostalgic journey in history.
Beyti Güler has an old fashioned gentility which is scarce nowadays. He greets each customer, no matter what their status with a warm smile and visits every table asking permission to sit with them for a while. These short conversations are not about ordinary things, like whether they are enjoying their meals or not; rather, he makes them feel as if he is part of their family. He is kind enough to ask even the children’s opinions. And when those children grow up and have their own kids it is not surprising that they keep coming back to Beyti restaurant. “I have served many generations,” says Güler.
Speaking of generations, he has left the day-to-day running of the restaurant to his son Ahmet. But, despite his age, he still comes to the restaurant every day to welcome his customers: “I will only retire when I pass away.”
Beyti restaurant: Orman Sokak No.8, Florya; T: 0212 663 29 90