Eating Your Way through the Streets of Istanbul

The fastest way to the heart of a culture is through its stomach, and often the culture of food begins on the street. While this guide provides some counsel on what to avoid, I rarely take my own advice and simply can't think of anything I'd rather do in Istanbul than nosh through its bustling streets (if they're not bustling, it might be better not to eat there).

Morning rush hour in Turkey wouldn't be the same without the sound of the neighborhood simitçi hawking his wares. A simit is a savory sesame-covered pastry much like a bagel, only thinner (the simitçi being the guy who sells simit). I've always frequented the guy who stakes out his spot daily on the small triangle of sidewalk located at the entrance to Bankalar Sokagi, in Karaköy. Ask for a packet of peyner (cheese), the equivalent of a do-it-yourself schmeer.

Down the street at the Karaköy Pier is the humble (and famous) Güllüoglu sweet shop, where you'll find the best su boregi -- a buttery cheese- or meat-filled flaky pastry that's feathery and delicious, and a frequent staple of the Turkish breakfast. Güllüoglu also keeps their glass cases full of baklava. Grab a slab to go and munch on this buttery wonder outside on a bench by the cruise-ship docks.

All day long, vendors cloaked in Ottoman dress man the helms of boats bobbing wharfside at Eminönü, greeting arriving commuters and locals with grilled fish on a roll. It's fresh, quick, authentic, and at 3TL, cheap. The Tarihi Eminönü Balikçisi is the original.

On your stroll along Istiklal Caddesi or through the Balikpazari (Galatasaray Fish Market), you'll be hard-pressed not to be distracted by the odors coming from the few fast-food vendors displaying döner kebap (shwarma) on a vertical spit or oversize shallow pans full of cubed meat. The latter is tantuni, stir-fried beef cubes served in a wrap. Sounds pretty unspectacular, but it's anything but.

Up in Ortaköy, stands displaying heaps of diced meats and vegetables, condiments and spreads, and ready-made salads line the street leading from the main road to the pier. These goodies are actually filling for potatoes (called kümpir). All you have to do is point at the things you want (some of which may be a bit of a stretch for a potato topping). Just grab a plastic fork (provided) and stake out a seat on a waterfront bench. For those with culinary abandon or simply stomachs of steel, those stuffed mussels on offer opposite the potato stands are actually quite delicious. Admittedly, though, these require a great leap of faith.

The seasons also usher in or out some street-food staples. In summer, corn-on-the-cob corpses dot the Eminönü wharf; in winter, chestnuts roast on open fires around town.

Cafes & Eateries in the Grand Bazaar

Need a shot of caffeine? Café Ist, Tarakçilar Cad. (tel. 0212/527-9353), and Fes Café, Halicilar Cad. 62 (tel. 0212/528-1613), both located in the Grand Bazaar, are open Monday through Saturday 8:30am to 7pm, and offer sanctuary from endless cups of Nescafé with a wide selection of coffees, flavored teas, and fresh-squeezed juices. Fes also has a bistro just outside the Nuruosmaniye Mosque at Ali Baba Türbe Sok. 25/27 (tel. 0212/526-3070). Two new spots are both husband-and-wife-team enterprises: Julia's Kitchen, Keseçiler Cad. 110-112 (tel. 0212/512-9677), serves basic Turkish appetizers, home cooking, and even cookies for teatime; Café Sultan, Halicilar Cad. (tel. 0212/527-0145), has salads drizzled in some very interesting dressings, along with sandwiches and baked goods.

A Sweet Shop near Galata

You can really work up an appetite wandering around the spice bazaar. Across the Galata Bridge at the Karaköy seaport is the humble (and famous) Güllüoglu (tel. 0212/244-4567) sweet shop, where you'll find the best börek -- a feathery and delicious cheese- or meat-filled pastry. They also keep their glass cases full of baklava.

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