Turkish food is varied with lots of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and great desserts. The restaurants are specialised for meat, fish, home cooked dishes, sandwiches, etc. Many people coming to visit Istanbul get disappointed with the food because they can’t find the great authentic restaurants that locals eat in and have to make do with second rate tourist fare. Another reason is they don’t know how to order the great dishes in a restaurant as true Turkish restaurants differ in eating style and habits to regular European restaurants. This is what I want explain here by describing the ‘meyhane’ etiquette in Turkey.
Meyhane literally means ‘drinking place’ from old Turkish. So people go to Meyhane to drink but in Turkey alcohol is closely linked to eating and they cannot be thought of separately. If you go to a typical meyhane thinking of a quick meal of a starter, a main course and a glass of wine, meyhane is not for you. You also should not order from a menu and if this makes you uncomfortable, you again should stay away from a meyhane.
A Meyhane is a restaurant that serves a selection of mezes (small dishes mostly vegetarian) choices of main courses and desserts in an informal environment, to be consumed with alcohol, mainly raki (the local strong anise favoured spirit) or sometimes wine, sometimes with musicians in a relaxed and noisy atmosphere. It can be very expensive high end, or very cheap in a small shop in a side street, the essence of a meyhane does not change. You usually see large tables of friends chatting, singing, eating, socializing with other tables and waiters.
Meyhanes may specialize in seafood or meat or may be mixed. There will be no menu. Most meyhanes either charge a fixed price for the whole dinner including unlimited raki or local wine, or will have fixed prices for all mezes and then for all main courses so they just count them up. A la carte pricing is rare. In most meyhanes around Taksim, istiklal street, fish market, Nevizade, Asmalimescit you get a set menu. Ranging from 30YTL all the way up to 100YTL is normal.
When you sit at your table, they bring the water and bread, ask for your drink order and then they start bringing the starters, which usually would be set and they will not give you any choice. Typically 5-10 mezes, sometimes up to 20 varieties in small portions are bought to the table. They may change daily depending on the chef’s pleasure, or seasonally depending on availability. Mezes are shared by the whole table, not individual. Cold starters are nearly all vegetarian, such as various vegetables cooked in olive oil, yoghurt dishes, salads, pickles, salsa style dips. In seafood places you may get octopus, prawn as well or in a meat place maybe cold meat slices but rarely. You should take your time with the mezes as this is actually the main part of the meal. A sip of raki, a bit of meze, lots of conversation and singing is the usual way of getting through the mezes. This may take an hour or more.
After the cold mezes, come the hot mezes (this course in Turkish is called ‘ara sicak’ meaning middle hot course) . At this point you may have a choice but the choices are told to you by the waiter. The table chooses, 2 or 3 hot starters. These could be small casseroles, fried calamari or mussles, borek, small meatballs depending on the meyhane. Meyhanes all have their own specialities.
After hot mezes is the time for main course. This course is chosen individually and is one each. Usual main courses are grilled meat, meat on skewers, grilled fish, chicken. They are not as heavy as in Kebap restaurants. Some people decide to skip this course if they’ve eaten too much meze and I am one of these people as I always like the mezes more and main course is usually an anti climax for me. Also I need to reserve space for the desserts!!
By this stage a lot of raki or wine will have been consumed and the noise in the meyhane would be loud, singing even if there is no music, maybe musicians and if things get really fun, some dancing around the tables, even on the chairs. Some meyhanes provide tef (a small musical instrument of a round loop with sort of bells/round metals) to keep rhythm and even little drums called darbuka.
Dessert usually consists of a plate of seasonal fruits and a plate of heavy desserts such as selection of baklava, kadayif, pumpkin dessert.
Then follows Turkish coffee. When ordering Turkish coffee you have to specify how sweet you want it.
Sekersiz : no sugar, I’m on a diet despite the three thousand calories i just consumed,
az sekerli -I’m on a diet but the coffee is too bitter so can you put just a bit of sugar,
orta sekerli – OK, i like sugar, put a little more,
cok sekerli – more sugar than coffee in the small cup!!!
It is very difficult to recommend meyhanes in Istanbul as there are hundreds with really good food, good atmosphere, for every budget and everyone have their favourites. So instead I will list a few that I’ve been to and enjoyed:
Asmalimescit Balikcisi : http://www.asmalimescitbalikcisi.com/
Great little place in the heart of Asmalimescit, lively fun few streets just off Istiklal Street where Istanbullus head for a good evening out. Good seafood based food with meat and vegetarian options for main course, live music, only about 10 tables, always popular and always fun. In summer hey put 3-4 tables outside. Reservation essential as it is a tiny place.
Again in Asmalimescit, an old meyhane, reasonably priced, big, noisy and ever popular. To see a more traditional meyhane.
This is a fun fun fun place. Decor neutral, with old tables chairs painted white, great food, friendly service and wonderful entertainment with great gypsy musicians. Fixed price of around 70YTL including unlimited raki, local wine or beer. At the end of the night our table was on the chairs with musical instruments and belly dancing accessories dancing and singing.
This is a slightly more expensive place with a small stage for musicians and it is a location people go to have fun. Food is good, fun is very very good.
A great traditional meyhane serving Turkish and Greek dishes. They also have live music of traditional Turkish ‘Fasil’ with traditional musical instruments and singing. It would be a great experience. Kallavi is in Beyoglu as well, close to Taksim square, on a side street.
There are many meyhanes in the Beyoglu neighbourhood (all the above meyhanes were located around there). Main streets to find them are Nevizade (behind the fish market), Cicek Pasaji, Asmalimescit. ‘Boncuk’ is highly recommended in Nevizade. You can strall along these streets and places and pick a meyhane that you like the look of.
Another location for seafood meyhanes is Kumkapi. This is by the shores of Marmara Sea, close to Sultanahmet, on the way to the airport. The area is huge, street after street of meyhanes, with tables on the streets in summer and street musicians. Very informal and fun but I heard a lot of complaints that quality varies. Some serve substandard but overly expensive food. If you don’t go to a recommended place it is difficult to find which ones are good. Tourists may be ripped off. You won’t have a similar problem in Beyoglu.
Greek meyhanes are also very popular with the entertainment of mainly Greek music by Turkish musicians, the food is similar and theie style is identical to Turkish meyhanes. I’ve not been to one in Istanbul for a long time, I’ve been to a few in Bodrum so I cannot recommend a recent Greek meyhane, I’ve been to Zorba a couple of times but it’s probably closed now.
Also have a look at this website, though in Turkish it is the main meyhane promotion website: http://www.meyhane.com/
Meyhanes are informal, you don’t need to dress up but Istanbul residents have a different understanding of dressing down, they will still be smart.