The atmosphere in a great restaurant is almost tangible, I think. It is a kind of contented buzz: a bass note of pleasure, stemming not just from enjoyment of the food but also from the occasion itself. Friendly staff, sympathetic lighting good acoustics… there are many factors involved, but the result is the same anywhere in the world.
Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern and Balthazar spring to mind, as do St John and The Ivy in London, and countless Parisian bistros and brasseries. The buzz is mellower and more grown-up than the exuberant chatter at much-hyped new restaurants. It is akin to the purr of a Rolls-Royce.
Karaköy Lokantasi (pictured), in a newly fashionable district of Istanbul close to the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, is just such a restaurant. During the day, it serves as a popular lunch spot for local workers; at night, though, it transforms into a meyhane – from the Persian for “wine house” – in which meze and raki are guzzled with equal enthusiasm by a stylish crowd of Istanbullers. There is an excellent all-Turkish wine list as well: order the rich, dark, velvety Tugra Öküzgözü from the Turkish Aegean (actually, maybe just point to it).
The place has an arty feel: the Istanbul Modern is down the road, as are plenty of art and design studios, and the corner window features a changing series of installations by local artist Pinar Akkurt.
The walls and pillars of the dining room are decorated in the distinctive blue and white Iznik tiles that adorn many of the city’s Byzantine buildings, but are rare in restaurants. In the middle of the room, an ornate staircase corkscrews its way from the first-floor dining room, but book a table on the ground floor if possible.
Head first to the counter, where all the cold meze are on display: artichoke hearts with beetroot and olive oil; salted bonito, perched on rings of red onion; pale and delicate calf’s brains; and smooth, tangy tarama. I chose topik, a terrific Armenian dish of nuts, tahini and onions wrapped in chickpea paste. There were a dozen other equally tempting dishes.
There is spiced, wafer-thin lamb’s liver too: briefly fried, meltingly tender and fragrant. And shrimps sautéed in garlic; and octopus, the smoky char of the grill still clinging to its tentacles; and fish: small red mullet and even smaller anchovies (a particular Istanbul favourite), lightly dredged in seasoned flour and fried until crisp.
But most of all, there is the atmosphere. Clubby but not cliquey; friendly but not in-your-face; professional too, but the only starchiness is in the white tablecloths. Karaköy Lokantasi exudes bonhomie and self-confidence: book ahead, go for the buzz, then stay for the meze, the raki and the company.