All Articles 10 dishes you must try in Istanbul

10 dishes you must try in Istanbul

Including the best place to indulge in some riverfront baklava.

Barry Yourgrau
By Barry Yourgrau Apr 10, 2024 8 minutes read
Various dishes from Biz Istanbul
Dinner at Biz Istanbul
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Smitten with Istanbul since my first visit in 2003, I now live part-time in this magical city that bridges two continents. Here, I ride a yellow-funneled Bosphorus ferryboat past Ottoman mosques and palaces to waterside fish restaurants, linger long over sumptuous Turkish breakfasts, and crisscross between Europe and Asia for the best wood-fired flatbreads or the flakiest baklavas.

Istanbul is one of the world’s great food capitals and its gastronomy retains the city’s multi-cultural heritage, with lush vegetarian dishes from its Christian minorities, meze (small plates) at taverns that originated in the Byzantine era, and—more recently—spicy, meaty grills from Türkiye‘s southeast. Meanwhile, innovative chefs are reimagining Anatolian classics starring yogurt, pomegranate, and bulgur.

Consider the following a masterclass on the best 10 dishes for a true taste of Istanbul. As we say, afiyet olsun—bon appetit!

Meze

A glass of raki and appetizers on the table
A glass of raki and appetizers
Image: Getty Images/evrim ertik

At a meyhane (Persian for “wine house”), each meal kicks off with the rite of choosing your meze from a display tray called tepsi—a constellation of savory bites to accompany raki, Türkiye’s signature anise-flavored spirit. Meze offerings showcase Istanbul’s diverse culinary mix, with cold items such as Armenian topik (mashed chickpeas with caramelized onions) or Circassian chicken (served in a creamy walnut sauce), and hot meze like “Albanian” liver (fried and served with wisps of raw onion).

Reservations are essential at this Beyoglu favorite. Under its second-floor movie and theater posters, regulars enjoy light fava bean puree garnished with olive oil, lemon, and dill; the fluffiest patlican salatasi (eggplant spread) in town; and hot meze such as triangular borek pastries griddled to perfection. The petal-thin slices of lamb liver—flash-fried and sprinkled with chilis—are legendary.

Tip: Raki drinking has its protocols. First in the glass is the raki, either tek (a single) or doble (double). The second ingredient is water (be sure to indicate how much), which will turn it milky. Last comes the ice. Your waiter will craft it for you perfectly.

Lahmacun

Close up of  lahmacun with sun dried pepper and tomato paste
Thin, crispy and freshly baked lahmacun
Image: LilibogK/Tripadvisor

Türkiye’s answer to pizza, lahmacun is a gift from the country’s southeast, arriving in Istanbul in the mid-20th century. Thin dough rounds are smeared with minced lamb or beef seasoned with salca (sun-dried pepper paste), tomatoes, onions, and parsley, and then quickly wood-fired to a beautiful blister. You eat the result folded or rolled around parsley sprigs and/or bits of sliced tomatoes or radish, topped off with a squeeze of lemon. Most locals prefer their lahmacun served citir, meaning extra-crispy.

Where to get it: Halil Lahmacun, Kadikoy

Under its cheerful striped awning in Kadikoy on the Bosphorus’s Asian side, Halil Lahmacun has been turning out dinner-plate-sized lahmacuns of supernatural quality since 1980. Its secret? The tomato paste and dried red peppers are sourced from the Silk Road city of Urfa, and combined with low-fat meat—and no onions. Order it mild or spicy. Halil also makes its own ayran, a traditional, foamy yogurt–based drink.

Tip: Kadikoy’s buzzy food market is right nearby. Load up on cheeses, olives, honey, spices, and freshly ground Turkish coffee at the many shops.

Doner

Shaving doner off a vertical rotating spit
Image: HamitGunesli/Tripadvisor

In 1867, a chef named Iskender in Bursa, across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, decided to roast lamb on a vertical rotating spit, in stacked slices. He then served the shaved portions on top of some pide bread instead of the traditional rice. So was born the Turkish version of what evolved into the hearty succulent meal-in-the-hand called the doner. Today, chicken and other meats are roasted doner-style too.

Where to get it: Gulebru Kantin, Grand Bazaar

Located near pretty Zincilir Han on a quieter corner in the Grand Bazaar‘s hubbub, tiny Gulebru Kantin serves merchants and shoppers its prized doners composed of marinated cuts of beef. Since 1960, the spot has been freshly assembling ingredients each morning to rotate beside charcoal-fired flames (as opposed to the more common gas). Here, you order by weight, and my move is the 100-gram portion of the deftly shaved roast loaded inside a lavash flatbread durum (wrap) with French fries and tangy pickles.

Tip: The doner is ready to serve at noon, and runs out by 5 p.m. If you’re lost, keep asking the bazaar shopkeepers for directions.

Zeytinyagli

Zeytinyagli (which translates to “with olive oil”) is more of a cooking method essential to Istanbul’s kitchens than a particular dish. Seasonal veggies—like artichokes, okra, green beans—are slowly braised in quality olive oil, usually with slow-cooked onions and pinches of sugar. The result: a lush-textured veggie confit that melts in the mouth when it’s served at room temperature. Traditionally cooked by Christian minorities such as the Greeks and Armenians during meatless Lent, zeytinyagli is one of Istanbul’s most beloved staples.

Where to get it: Biz Istanbul, Taksim Square

A fixture at humble esnaf lokantas (“tradesmen canteens”), zeytinyagli gets the penthouse treatment at Biz Istanbul atop the Ataturk Cultural Center. The stunning space offers three different dining areas with carefully researched menus of Istanbul classics. Biz’s lokanta section features several types of impeccable zeytinyagli, including plump leeks braised with carrots, giant artichokes, and a zucchini-skin dish called kashkarikas—a legacy of the city’s Sephardic Jews. In winter, there’s even quince zeytinyagli.

Tip: Start with a cocktail while taking in the Bosphorus panorama from Biz’s open-air terrace.

Turkish breakfast

Traditional  Turkish breakfast
Coffee
Breakfast served up in a cozy atmosphere
Image: @gulekafe

A proper Turkish kahvalti (breakfast, literally “before coffee”) is a pretty epic affair, a cornucopia of sweet and savory tastes overcrowding the table. Typical items include olives, tomatoes and crunchy cucumbers, string cheese and feta, clotted cream called kaymak, honey, artisanal jams, and eggs either softly scrambled with tomatoes and peppers in a preparation called menemen, or fried with spicy sucuk sausage. The bread assortment includes simit (sesame-crusted bread rings) and filled borek pastries.

Where to get it: Gule Kafe, Kuzguncuk

In the leafy Asian-side village of Kuzguncuk, you’ll find the charming bougainvillea-covered Gule Kafe, which the hospitable owner, Feriha Surel, runs out of her family’s house. Her set breakfast has all the usual hits, such as artisanal cheeses, pogaca (crumbly buns with a cheesy filling), and home-made borek, as well as jams she prepares from tart cherries or plums. Best of all might be Gule’s signature donuts called pisi, easily eaten by the dozen (I’ve attempted). To drink, try the herbal teas and sherbets—refreshing Ottoman cordials in flavors like basil and tamarind. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the crumbly sesame cookies or sour cherry chocolate cake.

Tip: Should you fall in love with the jams, you can purchase a jar to bring home with you.

Grilled fish

A quintessential Istanbul pastime is eating fish along the Bosphorus. The balikci (fish restaurant) ritual begins with raki accompanied by melon and feta cheese, followed by meze which always includes the buttery thick-cut lakerda (cured bonito) and crisp-fried calamari. Then comes the fish—strictly seasonal, cooked as simply as possible, and always accompanied by peppery arugula leaves and sliced sweet red onion.

Where to get it: Kiyi, Tarabya

The classiest balikci in town is this handsome place in Tarabya, up toward the Black Sea, where the air is salty and bracing. My favorite second-floor table at this sleek, airy place looks out over the marina and the Bosphorus ship traffic beyond. Summers feature silvery sardines grilled in grape leaves. Late fall brings a prized migratory bluefish called lufer, while in winter and early spring, the showpiece is meaty, just-caught kalkan (turbot).

Tip: The scenic Bosphorus ferry ride here is a must. Take it to Buyukdere or Sariyer north of Tarabya, then catch a bus or taxi/Uber to Kiyi. The ferries end fairly early, so count on a bus or taxi back.

Dolma

squash  blossom stuffed dolma
Squash blossom stuffed dolma
Image: Seraf Vadi

Stuffed vegetables exist in seemingly myriad versions in Istanbul—case and point: Turkish dolma. Any veggie that can be stuffed or wrapped is put to delicious use, though the grape- and cabbage-leaf variety is called sarma (from sarmak, "wrapping”). Cold dolma comes slow-cooked in olive oil with a filling of spiced and herbed rice flecked with currants and pine nuts. For hot main dishes, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, or eggplants are baked or braised with a sturdier stuffing of ground meat and rice seasoned with herbs, sautéed onions, and sometimes pomegranate molasses. Midye dolma (stuffed mussels) are also a local favorite.

Where to get it: Seraf Vadi, Maslak

Chef Sinem Ozler is Istanbul’s reigning dolma queen, having researched her recipes all over the country. For a cold starter at Seraf Vadi, order her soulful sogan dolma made with wood-fired onions—a traditional recipe from Istanbul’s Armenian community rarely seen outside homes. Among her hot appetizers is a dolma from the southeastern region of Gaziantep, made from reconstituted sun-dried eggplants and peppers stuffed with ground lamb, rice, and tart sumac juice, and served with thick yogurt.

Tip: Pair some Turkish wine with your dolma. Seraf Vadi’s exemplary 240-label list was created by pioneering female wine director Sabiha Apaydin.

Manti

Exterior view looking into Yeni dining area
Plated manti dumplings
Image: Courtesy Yeni Lokanta

Türkiye’s favorite comfort food? I raise my voting spoon for a plateful of Anatolian dumplings called manti. These meat-filled wheat-flour packets come covered in a tangy, slightly warmed yogurt, which is then drizzled with butter sizzled with dried mint, thyme, and fruity-spicy red pepper flakes. It’s a dish redolent with Istanbulites’ family memories—it also works as an ace hangover remedy.

Where to get it: Yeni Lokanta, Beyoglu

At stylish, modern Anatolian Yeni Lokanta in Beyoglu, chef Civan Er reworks manti as copious ravioli pouches filled not with lamb but with dried eggplant. Aiding and abetting the umami flavors is a salty goat yogurt blended with onion, ginger, and pomegranate molasses. Note: The restaurant currently serves manti a la carte for lunch or as part of the tasting menu for dinner.

Kebab

Chef preparing kebab over the open grill
Image: Courtesy Zubeyir Ocakbasi

Yet another gift to Istanbul from Türkiye’s southeast, the classic kebab (“kebap” in Turkish) entails hand-minced lamb marbled with fat and clumped around skewers in meatball or sausage shapes. It’s best appreciated at a smoky kebabci (kebab house) or an ocakbasi (grill house) where you’ll usually kick off your meal with a pomegranate-laced salad called gavurdag and a fried lamb-filled bulgur dumpling called icli kofte. Then all hail the kebabs—liver, chicken wings, all manner of lamb—served atop lavash for wrapping the meat along with grilled tomatoes and peppers, and sliced red onion spiced with tart sumac.

Where to get it: Zubeyir Ocakbasi, Taksim Square

The heart of this cozy two-story shrine to skewers is its grandly monogrammed copper-hooded grill. Regulars usually let the servers do their ordering but do speak up for the spicy minced lamb Adana kebab, the chicken wings, and the succulent kaburga (ribs). And I’m partial anytime, anywhere, to patlican kebab, which involves juicy lamb patties cradled on skewers between chunks of creamy-fleshed eggplant. For an immersive experience, try sitting at the grill counter.

Tip: Zubeyir Ocakbasi is rightly popular—reservations are a must.

Baklava

Tray of various types of baklava
A taste of Istanbul's finest treat
Image: hayrialtayy/Tripadvisor

This syrup-drenched sweet composed of gossamer-thin pastry layers loaded with nuts might be found in other countries as well, but it was Türkiye’s Ottoman-era pastry chefs who perfected it into an art form. These days baklava is a catch-all term for different confections featuring paper-thin sheets of yufka (filo) dough, usually cradling a filling of grassy-green local pistachios. For Turks, it’s the treat that signifies celebration.

Where to get it: Karakoy Gulluoglu, Galataport

Founded by the Gullu family in the mid-19th century, Gulluoglu is Türkiye’s most revered artisanal baklava brand with branches opened by different family members all over the country. Karakoy Gulluoglu—recently relocated to striking new premises near Galataport—is not only one of the brand’s most famous outposts, it’s one of Istanbul’s best-known attractions. Classic shapes here include kare (diamonds) with 40 layers of pastry doused with syrup and sheep’s butter after being laden with early-harvest pistachios. Just as popular among locals are sobiyet (floppy triangles, invented by the Gullus), green nutty rolls called durum sarma, and the burma kadayif (shredded wheat rolls).

Tip: Ask for a box and indulge in your treats waterside right across at Galataport’s panoramic Bosphorus.

Barry Yourgrau
Barry Yourgrau is a writer living between New York and Istanbul, with much traveling beyond. He has noshed on yakitori under Tokyo railway arches, gulped distilado with mescaleros in a Oaxaca highland cave, roamed Singapore hawker centers, and laughed gleefully at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. His memoir, "Mess", is a counter to Marie Kondo.