I didn’t have a specific place in mind to eat when we arrived in Istanbul, but I knew it should be a meyhane in Beyoğlu – the modern side of European Istanbul, across the Golden Horn from where we were staying in Sultanhamet.
Our innkeeper had called for us when we checked in earlier that day, going down the list of meyhanes as I pointed them out in my Lonely Planet Encounter Istanbul book. This being Saturday night, obtaining a table didn’t look promising. Finally though, he reached one with a table — Sofyalı 9. LP said, “Tables here are hot property on a Friday or Saturday night and no wonder. This gem serves up some of the best meyhane (tavern) food in the city, and does so in surrounds as welcoming as they are attractive.”
My original plan had been to walk from the Grand Bazaar across the Galata Bridge to Beyoğlu as the sun set. I dreamed about the romantic sight of the minarets ablaze with the setting sun. One would think I should know by now though, to take into account the reality of aching feet and heavy bags. By the time we finished up at the Grand Bazaar we had been our feet all day and those of us laden with purchases didn’t relish the thought of the walking another couple of miles. Thus it was we returned to our hotel and took the taxi our innkeeper called for us.
This taxi charged us the fair meter rate of 10 lira, further illustrating just how badly we’d been swindled earlier in the day. He dropped us at the foot of İstiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian avenue housing boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cafés, night clubs, patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants. Nineteenth century Turkish architecture lined the street. Flags and lights strung overhead lent a festive air as we strolled with the other Saturday night visitors to Beyoğlu.
We found our restaurant easily, even a little early for our 8:30 reservation. It filled a corner on Sofyali Sokuk with crowded tables. As we walked up we observed a waiter presenting a tray of mezes to a table. I wondered how you could ever decide from among the delicious array of small dishes.
We were a little disappointed to be given a table inside rather than out on the sidewalk, but we were at least right next to a window and could still see the action. Our own tray of delights came right away, the waiter quickly identifying the assortment of foods for us. We had a little trouble following and an American couple at the next table lent a hand. We learned they were spending 6 months in Turkey teaching English.
Between the four of us we pointed and picked at least a half-dozen of the mezes which the waiter promptly removed from the tray and set on the table for us. We ordered raki, except Holly who doesn’t like the taste, reminiscent of black licorice.
We passed the little dishes around, each trying a little of this and a little of that. We had a seaweed salad, tzatziki, a soft white cheese, melons, anchovies, squid, and several more that we ate too quickly for me to remember. The waiter passed by again with hot cheese pastries which we all snagged. Hot, flaky, and oozing with delicious cheese, they were too good to pass up when he returned with another tray. This could be dangerous, this point-and-eat method of ordering. Holly evidently agreed. “You know you have to pay for everything you’re ordering, don’t you?” she pointed out. Of course I knew — the only trouble was we didn’t know how much anything was.
I ate my fill of the meze and tried to drink my raki. It was quite strong though, so I continued to add water after each sip. Then we learned we were meant to order a main course from the menu. I was full and sleepy, but didn’t want to pass up a chance to taste more Turkish food, which so far I liked very much. Most of the items were meat, but I found a tuna salad. We waited a long time for the main courses to come out, growing more and more tired after our day’s exertions. We passed the time playing with a friendly cat though, who hopped up and purred, a furry little engine in my lap. Quite convenient too, to have a cat, for when my tuna salad arrived it looked and tasted like cat food. I should have stuck with the mezes. My new feline friend and Brian helped me dispose of it though.
The smoke in the room was making me stuffy and headachey so I stepped out for some fresh air and a stroll down the lively street. In the midst of a travel experience sometimes I find I need a few minutes alone to try to process and absorb what I’m seeing and feeling. Istanbul was a grand and overwhelming barrage of stimuli and I hadn’t paused all day to step back and just let it soak in. My solitary walk of a few blocks gave me some needed time to do this.
I returned to the restaurant and met back up with the group. Brian and I walked ahead and I dashed into a shop to get Holly a Fanta. She had an endearing habit of exclaiming, “Oh, I love Fanta,” and I thought it would be a fun treat. I was parched as well and needed a tall cold bottle of water.
We wandered further up İstiklal Caddesi, clearly the happening place to be on a Saturday night, and popped into a shop to buy some souvenirs in the form of Turkish Delight. At length we decided we should head back to the hotel — we had to be up early to meet our guide. Chas had the clever idea to tell the taxi driver to take us to the Blue Mosque instead of our hotel. Ignorant tourists we may be, but we would definitely know if he tried to drop us somewhere not the Blue Mosque.
The ride back presented the most dramatic nighttime skyline I’ve ever seen. The late-night beauty of the mosques along the Golden Horn made me want to applaud or weep or freeze the moment forever.
We arrived back at the floodlit Blue Mosque, yet another dramatic and fiercely beautiful sight. Children nearby played ball in the cool, wet grass. I couldn’t resist and kicked off my shoes to slip through the soothing green lawn. We sat on benches and just watched the birds soaring around the minarets for a while before rousing ourselves to walk back to our hotel. It had been a long day and we weren’t finished with Istanbul yet.