The meyhane is more than a mere place to eat and drink. It is where conversation takes center stage, where hearts are poured out as the rakı flows. Many traditional establishments with long and illustrious histories remain in Istanbul. But in recent years many new places have also opened—offering a similar ambience, but with a modern twist.The meyhane as we understand it today—where people sit together around tables draped in white linen, select mezze from trays, and sip rakı—is a relatively recent phenomenon. Meyhanes date back to the Byzantine era, but underwent a slow but dramatic evolution.
Evliya Çelebi, the renowned author of the seventeenth century book of travels Seyahatname, wrote that the neighborhood of Galata hosted an abundance of meyhanes. According to Çelebi, there were more than a thousand meyhanes throughout Istanbul at that time; many were taverns from Byzantine times, that had survived the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
But what were meyhanes like back then? The urban researcher Işıl Çokuğraş has described them as generally small, dark spaces, often underground and with few or no windows, with four or five wooden stools, low tables by a bar, and casks filled with wine lining the walls. The term meyhane means “house of wine.”
Istanbul’s meyhanes were owned by non-Muslims, who were generally allowed to produce and sell their own wine under Ottoman rule outside of Muslim districts and the historical city walls in neighborhoods such as Galata, Beyoğlu, Tatavla (today’s Kurtuluş), fishing villages between Beşiktaş and Sarıyer, Haliç, and Kadıköy. Some Muslim clients went there secretly.
However, not all meyhanes were alike. The social standing of its patrons, as well as the neighborhood in which it was located, denoted its status. Before the nineteenth century, the meyhanes frequented by the better heeled were known as gedikli meyhane, licensed meyhanes which paid taxes to the Ottoman authorities. They had names such as Hançerli (the one with the dagger), Kürkçü (the fur seller), and Yahudi (Jewish). Some of these meyhanes were frequented by janissaries—the sultan’s elite guard—who would get better service and attention than the other customers.
According to Çokuğraş, these meyhanes had service counters filled with various mezze for those who would rather drink there than at a table, and pitchers would be hanging above them. The rest of the space would hold wooden tables and rattan stools. Some would also have small private rooms that would be open to the meyhane’s regulars. Right around the time of sunset, the meyhane owner would walk around and light the candles standing erect on terracotta holders, and service would begin.
Koltuk meyhaneleri, on the other hand, were illicit establishments serving those in the lower social strata of Ottoman society called the ayak takımı (those on foot duty), such as corner boys, porters, and vagabonds. These meyhanes would most often be hidden in the back corners of side street markets or grocers. A more ‘civilized’ version of these meyhanes called kibar koltukları served civil servants and clerks, who could not drink at home but still enjoyed a sip from time to time.
Most interesting, perhaps, were the ayaklı meyhane; the mobile, on-foot meyhanes of the Ottoman era. The alcohol sellers, many of whom were Armenian, would wrap sheep intestines filled with wine around their waists, warmed by their body heat, with a funnel at the end for pouring. They also wore a cüppe type of coat that could conceal a cup within its inner pocket. When a passerby asked for a drink, the men would quickly enter a side street shop or a darkened corner, and pour alcohol into the cup, where the customer would quickly take a swig. Most often, the customer would wipe his lips with the back of his fist. This manner of wiping away the mouth, without having anything to accompany the alcohol, was called yumruk mezesi (the fist mezze), and was also a sign of indigence.
Meyhanes often had a tumultuous relationship with the authorities. Many were closed down by decrees from the Ottoman sultan, although some would later re-open again. Around 500 were still open by the early nineteenth century, according to research by Çokuğraş.
Change of times
The Tanzimat period of political and social reforms (1839-1876) marked a distinct change in the perception of meyhanes. New rights were given to non-Muslim citizens, including the legalization of many illicit meyhanes. Over time, wealthier Muslims also began to frequent them. In the mid nineteenth century the drink of choice shifted from wine to rakı.
Baloz meyhanes also emerged, and served as lower-class replicas of the balls enjoyed by the modernizing Ottoman elite. These meyhanes appeared near Galata, often serving sailors, with women appearing for the first time in the meyhanes; singing, playing instruments, and dancing.
By the early twentieth century many meyhanes had also become exclusive places of entertainment, with spotless tables and dinnerware, meticulous service, and small plates of mezze. The customers would not have to order nor pay for them, only for the alcohol they consumed.
It was only after the founding of the Turkish Republic that women began entering meyhanes as customers. When he opened his first meyhane in 1938, Kör Agop is said to have declared: “we want men and women together in life and at the table.”
For Yorgo Okumuş, a Greek-Turkish meyhane proprietor, the arrival of female customers was a milestone. “Where there are women, there’s civilization. Before the women came to meyhanes, it was a rowdier place,” he said in an interview with The Guide Istanbul in 2014.
Having moved from Gökçeada to Istanbul at the age of 15, Okumuş started working first as a busboy, then as a waiter, until he took partial ownership of İmroz meyhane in the 1970s.
Okumuş did not allow music in his meyhane, encouraging his guests to converse. Some now refer to the rakı table as çilingir (“locksmith”) sofrası; alluding to the way the secrets of the heart are unlocked and spoken around this table.
When Okumuş moved İmroz to Nevizade in early 1980s “there was nothing but repair shops, a funerary home, every building was single storied, there wasn’t much else.” Now one meyhane after another lines the street. While meyhane culture thrives in neighborhoods across Istanbul, it has come a long way from its Byzantine origins.
Several meyhanes in Istanbul date back decades and, while numerous factors have forced many owners to update their locations and service, many retain a nostalgic aura and prize their heritage—allowing you to briefly step back in time:
- Asmalımescit in Beyoğlu is where some of the best classics cluster: Asmalı Cavit, Yakup 2, Refik, and Sofyalı 9. They all guarantee an original meyhane experience.
- Looking somewhat like the door to Narnia, the main street entrance of Agora 1890 will transport you back in time. When visiting, make sure you’re not misled by google map to the nearby competitor with a similar name. Mürselpasa Caddesi No.185, Balat; T: (0212) 631 21 36
- Located in a little white Greek house on the Asian side, İnciraltı is named after the fig tree which has been a feature of its garden since the 1960s. Arabacılar Sokak No.4, Beylerbeyi; T: (0216) 557 66 86
- Opened in 1938, Kör Agop is famous for its high quality seafood dishes and live music. Its fish soup is still prepared using the eighty-year-old recipe by Agop’s wife. Ördekli Bakkal Sokak, No.5/A, Kumkapı; T: (0212) 517 23 34
- Located towards the end of Nevizade Sokak, Krependeki İmroz is an old Greek-style tavern established in the 1940s and thought to be one of the first opened in the area. The outdoor courtyard is very popular in the summer. Nevizade Sokak No.16, Nevizade; T: (0212) 249 90 73
- Kept in the same family who came from Albania in the late nineteenth century, everything in Safa Meyhanesi is nostalgic and authentic. İlyas bey Caddesi No.169, Yedikule; T: (0212) 585 55 94
Many “modern” establishments do not attempt to replicate the nostalgic meyhane. They tend to be airier, more minimalist in décor, and often strive for elegance; serving familiar food with a twist. This type of meyhane seems to be successfully spreading around town, and The Guide Istanbul has its own favorites in this category:
- With its delicious menu, spectacular Golden Horn view at sunset, and a hip terrace bar above the main dining area, Firuze offers the perfect blend of past and present on your night out. Şişhane Sokak No.5, Nejat Eczacıbaşı, Şişhane; T: (0212) 238 50 50
- It’s not all comfort food at Aila; chef Cem Karakuş ups the ante in Istanbul’s mezze game and that element of surprise keeps us returning. Plus, it also features the largest rakı bar in town. Büyükdere Caddesi No.76B, Mecidiyeköy; T: 0531 258 33 33
- Köprüaltı’s menu covers everything you might expect from a meyhane, topped off with a touch of the owner’s finesse. Yahya Kemal Caddesi No.4, Rumelihısarı; T: (0212) 287 73 23
- With only seven tables and a delicious, homemade mezze selection, Yedi Masa is the most obvious alternative to a cosy night at home in the nostalgic ambience of St Joseph School’s alumni association. Hülya Sokak No.56, Moda; T: (0216) 338 25 61
- Having just settled in at its new location in Nişantaşı, Nuran is an example of home cooking like no other. Ferah Sokak No.8/B, Teşvikiye; T: (0212) 586 82 49