Turkish food has long been at the forefront of international cuisine thanks to its use of the freshest produce, the incorporation of flavors from the far reaches of the Ottoman Empire, and the Imperial Chef's fear of displeasing the sultan. But just because an eatery bills itself as serving Ottoman cuisine doesn't mean your taste buds are going to explode. This is because many restaurants cater to tourists while keeping the menu lean and mean, lacking anything really interesting. A week or two of grilled meat and you'll see what I mean. Lately, though, Istanbul has regained its place as a culinary destination with celebrity chefs from the U.K., the U.S., Sweden, Japan, and, of course, Turkey. The progressive kitchens led by these chefs are located north of the Golden Horn, but even without a visit to one of these cover-story kitchens, the better meals will be had up in the neighborhoods of Beyoglu and Besiktas, and along the Bosphorus, and will be shared alongside Istanbullus.
Dining with a View -- Restaurant dining rooms resemble ghost-town eateries in the summer, but if you just continue up the steps, you'll see why. Istanbul is a city of rooftop terraces, and summer dining is almost exclusively enjoyed high above the city accompanied by warm breezes and breathtaking panoramas. Top roofs in Sultanahmet include the restaurants in the Armada, Eresin Crown, and Sultanhan hotels, each with splendid vistas of the Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. Over in Eminönü, Hamdi and Zindan restaurants sit atop the bustle of the Golden Horn facing the Galata Tower. In Beyoglu head to Midpoint, at Odakule, 360, Leb-i-Derya, Mikla, or the rooftop at NuPera for panoramas of the domes, minarets, and rooftops of the city. House Café and Banyan Seaside offer front-row seats to the charm of Ortaköy, while any Bosphorus village restaurant has the power to dazzle, by day or by night.
A Restaurant Primer
The idiosyncrasies of a foreign culture can create some frustrating experiences, especially when they get in the way of eating. In Turkey, dining out in often boisterous groups has traditionally been the province of men, and a smoke-filled room that reeks of macho may not be the most relaxing prospect for a meal. A woman dining alone will often be whisked away to an upstairs "family salon," called the aile salonu, where -- what else -- families, and particularly single women (but men also), can enjoy a meal in peace and quiet. Take advantage of it, and don't feel discriminated against; it's there for your comfort.
Restaurants are everywhere, and although the name restoran was a European import used for the best establishments, nowadays practically every type of place goes by that name. Cheap, simple, and often the best of Turkish home cooking (ev yemekleri) can be had at a family-run place called a lokanta, where the food is often prepared in advance (and ready to serve, called hazir yemek, or "ready food") and presented in a steam table. If you don't see any ready-to-eat food or aren't sure, ask if they have any on offer that day: "hazir yemek var mi?" A meyhane is a tavern full of those smokin' Turks I mentioned earlier, whereas a birahane is a potentially unruly beer hall. Both are said to be inappropriate for ladies; however, in the past few years, the meyhanes have morphed into civilized locales for a fun and informal night out.
Now that you've picked the place, it's time to sit down and read the menu, right? Wrong. Not all restaurants automatically provide menus, instead offering whatever's seasonal or the specialty of the house. If you'd feel more comfortable with a menu, don't be shy about asking, and politely say, "Menüyü var mi?" This is also important if you would like to know what you're paying in advance.
The level of English proficiency may be a bit lower at restaurants (as is the pay and the staff longevity), but as long as you keep your requests simple, you should have little trouble making yourself understood.
Cold mezes (appetizers) are often brought over on a platter, and the protocol is to simply point at the ones you want. Don't feel pressured into accepting every plate the waiter offers (none of it is free) or into ordering a main dish; Turks often make a meal out of an array of cold and hot mezes alone. When ordering fresh fish, it's perfectly acceptable -- actually, it's strongly advised -- to visually inspect your fish and to have it weighed for cost; otherwise, you may wind up with not only the biggest fish in the kitchen, but also the biggest check at the register, since some catches go to auction at near 100TL per kilo. If the price is higher than you planned to pay, either choose a less expensive variety or ask the waiter if it's possible to buy only half. While we're on the subject of cost, many restaurants are now starting a new trend to separate your money from your wallet: charging a cover (kuver) of anywhere from 2TL to 9TL per person, presumably for the bread and water (which up until recently were free).
When you're bursting at the seams and ready to go, ask for the check by either saying "hesap, lütfen," or by making the universal gesture of writing in midair. Gratuities are rarely included in the price of the meal, and 10% is a customary amount to leave as a tip.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.