You feel purposeful energy humming in the air of Istanbul as you watch the inhabitants stroll through the maze of streets and lanes, arm in arm. You sense their conviction that the city has been designed for their pleasure; that if they can make it here, they’ll make it anywhere. Sometimes they’re headed to experimental music concerts, gallery openings or simply the office. But very often, they’re bound for cafes, meyhanes (think of them as Turkish tapas bars, serving small plates, wine, beer and raki) or any of the countless restaurants that edge the waterfront and sidewalks.
Visitors to Istanbul can find it bewildering to decide where to eat. On my first trip there, in 2004, I was squired around town by a friend and his Turkish wife on a culinary Magical Mystery Tour that unspooled like a delicious dream. But on this visit (my fourth), I wandered with the intention of passing along the names of five spots sure to please epicurean newcomers — bearing in mind that couples, thrill seekers and purists have different gustatory goals. But everyone will want a tip for the best meyhane, so that’s where I began.
When I’m in the mood for mezes, I usually grab a table at the always-thronged meyhanes Refik or Sofyali 9, which bob amid a torrent of other meyhanes on Sofyali Sokak, in Beyoglu, near Tunel Square. But on my most recent visit, my Turkish friend Mehmet Murat Somer, author of “The Kiss Murder” and other mysteries, insisted I try Cavit, on Asmalimescit Caddesi, just around the corner. A few bites into the chargrilled borek meat pastry (other meyhanes tend to fry them), I saw why. The flaky phyllo crust was marvelously crisp against the juicy meat and sautéed onions inside.
You don’t necessarily go to a meyhane for great food; a bonhomous atmosphere matters more. But Cavit offers both. From the street, it resembles a snug, wood-faced Alpine chalet, but seems to magically expand as you walk in. On a damp, cool night earlier this year, the second-floor dining room was packed to the (exposed) rafters. Murat, as he is known, waved me to a corner table where he and a lively entourage were already carousing, and called for a bottle of raki as a fleet of well-crafted standards began sailing onto the table: patlican salatasi (smoky, roasted eggplant purée with béchamel), tender braised squid, and lakerda — rose-beige petals of cured Black Sea tunny.
We delved into the house specialty, topik, a sweet and savory Armenian chickpea dish that has the smooth-grained, dense texture of halvah. Dotted with raisins and tahini, it melted on the tongue. Piping hot sardines arrived next. Each morsel was made of two silver fillets, placed back-to-back and grilled. On the plate, they resembled shimmering butterflies. We spritzed them with lemon and snapped them up, skins and all.