This city is a food lover's town and restaurants abound, from humble kebab joints to fancy fish venues, with a variety of excellent options in between. Owing to its location on the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul is famous for its seafood. A classic Istanbul meal, usually eaten at one of the city's rollicking meyhanes (literally "drinking places"),
starts off with a wide selection of tapas-style cold appetizers called mezes, then a hot starter or two, and then moves on to a main course of grilled fish, all of it accompanied by the anise-flavored spirit rakı, Turkey's national drink. The waiter will generally bring a tray over to your table to show off the day’s mezes and you simply point to what you’d like. Note that the portions you get are often larger than the samples shown on the tray, so don’t over-order; you can always select a second—or third—round later. When it comes to the main course, fish can be expensive, so check prices and ask what's in season before ordering. In Istanbul, fall and winter are the best seasons for seafood.
Although Istanbul's dining scene, though diverse, was once mostly limited to Turkish cooking, a new generation of chefs is successfully fusing local dishes with more international flavors. Some are trained in the United States and Europe and bring home the contemporary culinary techniques they've learned abroad, and the result is a kind of nouvelle Turkish cuisine. Interest in little-known specialty foods and regional dishes from around Turkey is also taking hold, as chefs increasingly look at home, rather than abroad, for inspiration. Over the past few years, a handful of restaurants have opened where the chef-owner defines the vision and personality of the venue—though this may be old hat in Europe or North America, it represents an exciting new trend in Istanbul.
Istanbullus take their eating seriously, holding establishments to a very high standard; they expect their food to be fresh and well-prepared at even the most basic of eateries, and are likely to feel that few places can hold a candle to "Mom’s cooking." That said, at restaurants catering to a trendier, more upscale crowd, style sometimes seems to pass for substance, and consistency can be elusive; the fanciest venues may not necessarily offer the best food.
Sultanahmet might have most of the city's major sights and many hotels, but sadly, these places cater mostly to tourists and are the ones most likely to let their standards slip. Save for a few standouts, the area is sorely lacking in good dining options, and you'll have much better luck if you head across the Golden Horn, where the lively Beyoğlu district has everything from holes in the wall serving delicious home cooking to some of Istanbul's sleekest restaurants, while Karaköy and Galata also have an increasing range of dining options. Or head to some of the small, charming neighborhoods along the Bosphorus, which are famous for their fish restaurants; while these establishments tend to be more upscale and expensive, there are some affordable options as well.
Since Istanbullus love to go out, reservations are essential at most of the city's better restaurants. In summer, many establishments move their dining areas outdoors, and reservations become even more important if you want to snag a coveted outside table. For the most part, dining is casual, although locals enjoy dressing smartly when they're out. You may feel terribly underdressed if you show up in a restaurant dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, even in summer.
Despite Islamic proscriptions against alcohol, beer, wine, and the local spirit rakı are widely available, and at more upscale venues you can also find cocktails. Because of high taxes, however, alcoholic drinks—particularly anything imported—tend to be considerably more expensive than in North America or Europe. The national lager Efes is the most widely available beer; venues may carry two or three other domestic and international labels, but don’t expect a wide selection. Yeni Rakı, a state-run monopoly until not long ago, has remained the most popular rakı brand despite a recent proliferation of new companies producing the spirit. Wine consumption in Turkey has traditionally lagged far behind that of beer and rakı, but that’s been slowly changing in recent years as the quality of local wines has started to improve. The local wine industry is still in its fledgling stages compared to other parts of the world, but there are some very drinkable domestic wines on the market, most priced at only a fraction of what you’d pay for an imported label. Turkish wines are made from foreign grapes as well as indigenous varietals, of which the most noteworthy are the reds Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, and Kalecik Karası and the whites Emir and Narince.
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, restaurants that cater primarily to tourists, and most venues in cosmopolitan parts of Istanbul such as Beyoğlu, continue to operate normally. In more traditional neighborhoods some restaurants close altogether or change their hours of operation. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular to go to restaurants for iftar—the evening meal that breaks the daily fast—instead of having it in the home, as was traditionally done.
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