Having lived in Istanbul on and off since my childhood, I have followed the city’s culinary evolution with the kind of passionate scrutiny that most people reserve for their favorite football team. Believe it or not, there was a time when privileged Turks would only deem a restaurant truly “superior” if it served French Cordon Bleu dishes. Then Istanbullus realized that they’d been eating one of the world’s finest cuisines all along: their own meyhane (taverna) food—mezes, kebabs, and fresh fish—to be consumed with raki, preferably in sight of the Bosporus. But what most travelers don’t realize is that this is just one interpretation of Turkish food. And while it delights the palate, diners must consider: Istanbul flourished as the capital of a vast Eurasian empire for 500 years. What happened to the national cuisines of the Ottoman Empire’s various ethnic groups? And at the Topkapi Palace, surely the chefs rose above kebabs and mezes to keep the sultan well fed?
Only recently have a few restaurants begun to answer those questions. Through research in Ottoman archives and out in the provinces, chefs and restaurant owners have salvaged dishes that seemed lost to history and resurrected ancient Ottoman, regional, and home cooking. Today, they have pioneered a string of genuine Turkish restaurants. Here are six of the best such locales.
Thirtysomething owner Batur Durmay speaks fluent English and guides diners through his extensive list of dishes. Durmay’s family funded painstaking research in Ottoman archives to reproduce former sultans’ fare. After perusing the menu at a table in the restaurant’s garden, I realized that the empire’s earlier sultans loved strong, heavy food—they needed sustenance as they led their troops in battle. Hence the has pacasi tiritli: lamb’s trotter, soft, garlicky comfort food on toast, loved by locals who take it home in bagfuls. Or the fodula, a beefy stew in puffed bread laced sharply with sage. But later epicurean sultans added more delicate dishes to their repertoire, such as stuffed melon dolma, minced lamb with rice and pignoli atop a melting slice of sweet melon. Dinner for two $84.
After a 35-minute ferry ride from central Beşiktaş to Bostanci, on Istanbul’s Asian side, you can walk along the water to this modern restaurant with outdoor seating and sea views. Inside, well-heeled Turks rediscover their provincial cuisine, a fusion of Turco-Arabic dishes from the city of Mardin, in southeastern Turkey. It’s almost fine dining: white tablecloths and waiters with trays of long-handled copper-and-steel spoons, each filled with an appetizer. Try the spicy pink muhammara dip with atomized bread crumbs and goat cheese. Among the entrées, I’m still haunted by the steamed kubbes—juicy, minced beef and pignoli-stuffed dumplings—which surely began life in Shanghai and traveled along the Silk Road to Turkey. Dinner for two $64.
Also on the city’s Asian side, you’ll find Çiya Sofrasi, past the splendorous Kadiköy fish-and-produce market. As you pick your dishes from the no-nonsense counter, keep in mind that Çiya’s owner, Musa Dağdeviren, may be Turkey’s first globally recognized foodie brain. Dağdeviren began cooking two decades ago at a kebab joint. He now lectures internationally and has been profiled in The New Yorker. Each dish, painstakingly rediscovered from old folk memory, is delicious. Fill your plate with the fresh local bush-greens, especially the kaya koruğu, which are found in river silt. You won’t find the mumbar—sheep intestine filled with rice and lamb—anywhere else. The stuffed eggplant has an earthy edge, as does the syrupy, deeply comforting olive dessert. Dinner for two $50.
Right next to the Galata Tower, Kiva benefits from a perfect location for visitors, yet it seems like only Turks eat there. Adnan Şahin, the impresario, is another great food theorist who serves ethnic Anatolian food. He finds ingredients such as the rare sirken, a mildly bitter valley green. Japanese plums stuffed with meatballs also hail from the region, as does fellah köfte, meatless bulgur dumplings steeped in spicy tomato broth. So meticulous is Şahin that he has fine snow delivered from mountain caves to top off his sherbets. “There’s no question of interpretation,” he says. “The food tastes exactly as it should.” Dinner for two $45.
In a shopping mall near Levent, the center of upscale modern Istanbul, Osmani has a fresh and sharp range of Turkish food flavors. This is where health-conscious, time-strapped professionals dine in efficient comfort. From the cafeteria-style selection, start with a mixture of barely steamed wild greens and herbs from the Aegean area. Eat the yuvalama, a yogurty soup from the south, or the kadinbudu köfte, granular lamb balls with a fried crust, and you’ll feel as if you lived in Turkey in a past life. Also on the menu: keshkek, a pulpy comfort food made of lamb, served at traditional Turkish weddings. Dinner for two $40.
You might call Zarifi the first postmodern meyhane with a mission to revive lost elements of Beyoğlu’s past as a drinking, fun-loving ghetto from Byzantine days. Not to mention the food that went along with the mayhem. Owner Fehmi Yaşar worked as a filmmaker before launching the Byzantine cistern-like location right off Istiklal Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare. (A waterfront location in Çubuklu, on the Asian side, is open from July through September.) Yaşar says he created the menu as a tribute to the old Ottoman minorities of the Beyoğlu area: Sephardic Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others—and their dishes. Yaşar directed me to the Hungarian honey eggplant, an unprecedented sweet-savory flavor, and the Bosnian smoked meat cooked in oiled butcher paper. And eating the islim kebab—lamb on the bone wrapped in lush eggplant—felt like a homecoming on a winter’s night. Dinner for two $40.
Melik Kaylan, a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, is also a columnist for Forbes.