Lovers of traditional Turkish music – and I count myself among them – should not miss the opportunity while in Istanbul to visit some of the many small taverns, or meyhanes, and cafés which feature live music or where the patrons themselves provide musical entertainment. A Turkish meyhane is a world of its own, frequented by the young and old, the fashionable and dowdy, the rich and poor alike. The great leveler is raki an anise-flavored drink that fires the spirit. Make no mistake, a meyhane is not a quiet place. Smoke-filled, bustling, loud, and often crowded, meyhanes are popular settings for celebrations, as well as providing a home away from home for the solitary wanderer seeking the balm of alcohol and congenial company.
A meyhane is usually a friendly and unpretentious place, and however crowded it may be, a waiter will attentively guide you to a small table as soon as you enter. Mezes, or appetizers, are the crowning glory of meyhane cuisine, and after seating you, the waiter will often bring a tray laden with a tantalizing array of mezes from which to choose. Other times, when language fails or the music is loud, he may simply beckon you to follow him to the kitchen, where you’ll be shown what’s on offer to make your selection. Mezes are clever concoctions, seemingly designed to goad you to drink more, as the Turks take great pleasure in combining different textures and tastes as they eat. It’s all a very leisurely procedure: first take a sip of raki mixed with water, then perhaps a mouthful of eggplant salad, then a bit of crusty bread, followed by another sip of raki, then some garlicky yogurt dip, then a bit of cheese, more raki, followed by a crispy fried herring, another sip of raki… and so it goes, seemingly endlessly, punctuated by frequent cigarettes and plenty of cheerful conversation.
We only sampled the tip of the meyhane iceberg while we were in Istanbul, visiting places that had been recommended to us by people we met at our hotel and other places. We were told that some meyhanes were more desirable than others, the less desirable being little more than hard-core drinking spots filled almost exclusively with men. The better meyhanes feature not only music but also set-price menus which include a variety of mezes, drinks, and dinner. Although an evening out will probably run you no more than $10-$20 a person, be aware that many meyhanes do not take credit cards, so you should bring cash. Non-smokers may find the smoke in meyhanes to be somewhat overwhelming; if you are sensitive to smoke, consider going to one of the outdoor cafés instead.
The Taksim district, notably Istiklal Caddesi, is where the highest concentration of meyhanes and cafés can be found, though they are often tucked off in side streets that can be confusing to navigate. Luckily, a number of choice meyanes are easily located on the third street on the left branching off of Istiklal Caddesi as you enter from Taksim Square. This is Buyukparmakkapi Sokak, and a number of trendy night spots, restaurants, and bookstores are clustered here.
Up this street a short distance, you’ll find Sal (pronounced ‘Shal’), our favorite meyhane as well as a very popular one with the locals. The staff is very attentive and the ambience is suitably folksy; on any given evening you’ll find young musicians playing traditional Turkish instruments and singing, usually with a great deal of audience participation. This is one of the better places to hear music, and the patrons as well as the musicians are part of the entertainment. We went to this meyhane twice; on our second visit, we were greeted like old friends.
Just around the corner from Sal, on a sidestreet running parallel to Istiklal Caddesi, is Yorem (15 Hasnun Galip Sokak). The music was quite loud and the room very crowded and smokey on the night that we visited Yorem, so we elected not to stay long. However, we liked what we saw of the place and it had been highly recommended to us. If we’d been less tired that evening, we probably would have stayed and enjoyed ourselves.
Across the street from Yorem, we found a quieter setting in Türku, Türku, which reminded us in many ways of blues joints that we’d been to during our student days in southside Chicago. The lone musician was singing soulful down-and-out melodies, and the mostly male crowd sat nursing glasses of raki and taking long pulls at their cigarettes. Despite its less-than-festive atmosphere, however, the patrons were friendly. Not long after we sat down, the people at the table next to us sent over a bowl of the ubiquitous mixed nuts beloved by Turks. This meyhane also had the virtue of being cheap even by meyhane standards; a large beer won’t set you back more than about a dollar.
We had been recommended to go to a meyhane called Asir (formerly ‘Hasir,’ 94 Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi) not far from Istiklal Caddesi, but we had the very devil of a time finding it. We finally did so with the help of three rather inebriated men who gave every indication that they would have liked nothing better than to permanently attach themselves to us for an evening’s free drinks. (We parted amicably at the door of Asir after a half-hour’s search, sending our opportunistic friends off with enough money to stand them a couple rounds of drinks).
Asir is located in a rather threatening-looking part of the district, but as it’s only a stone’s throw from a police station and one of Taksim’s major thoroughfares, Tarlabasi Caddesi, we deemed it sufficiently safe. We were disappointed to find there was no live music that evening at Asir, but we quickly found that food, rather than music, was the focal point here. And what food!
The moment we were seated, the waiter came by with a tray groaning with a delicious-looking assortment of meze. We stuffed ourselves, washing it all down with a surprisingly good Turkish white wine. For the main course, we had exquisitely fresh fish, and for dessert a freshly-baked chocolate soufflé. All this at a very reasonable set price, too. We waddled out the door several hours later and jammed ourselves into the cab called for us – ooof!
The Sultanahmet area, where our hotel was located, is not known for its nightlife. Still, there are several spots to go to for music and convivial company after dark. In fact, the first night we were in Istanbul, we were more or less reeled in by a friendly tout into one of the nicer spots, Antik Gallery, just across from the Basilica Cistern on Salkim Sögüt Sokak. This is, properly speaking, more of a restaurant than a meyhane, but it does feature musicians after around 9 p.m. (Don’t expect much to happen before then, though; we made the mistake of coming around 7:30.)
This is an attractive, cozy spot, lit with hundreds of small glass lanterns overhead. Numerous folk crafts and rustic wooden beams add to the charm. More expensive than the meyhanes, the Antik Gallery is accustomed to more tourists and thus makes more concessions to them, yet it doesn’t come off as being particularly "touristy."
When the musicians made their appearance, we sat back and drank tea, digesting our dinner. And here I’d like to mention something very refreshing about Turkish meyhanes and restaurants: no one ever makes you feel as if you’re taking up a table by sitting as long as you like after a meal. In fact, from what we could tell there was virtually no table turnover at the Antiq Gallery whatsoever. Once seated, the patrons make an evening of it, ordering as much or little as they like.
The one spot that we visited that we had some reservations about was the popular but touristy Cennet (pronounced "Gennet") Café, located at 90 Divanyolu Caddesi, the main street running through Sultanahmet. We saw very few Turks here other than the staff, which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but we were put off by the indifferent service. The large room of the café is jammed with low tables and large cushions, and in the center area women dressed in traditional village costumes sit preparing Anatolian dishes. We found the food here to be so-so, and the music was also of an indifferent standard, but the saving grace of the place is some of its loopy "for tourists only" traditions. Ranged about the room are elaborate costumes and hats: fezzes, turbans, dancing girl’s veiled headpieces, and other paraphernalia. Customers are encouraged to don the hats and costumes to have their pictures taken or simply be silly. Our son greatly enjoyed dressing up as a "Sultan."
Relaxed, convivial, and affordable, meyhanes are Turkey’s version of an Irish pub or "Cheers"-style bar, places where you’re always made welcome and you’ll always be happy to return.