Food & Drink,  Places

Spilling into the street: café culture in Istanbul

I recently composed a half page piece for the Globe & Mail, one of Canada’s national broadsheets regarding Istanbul’s café culture, and my pick for the best coffee joint in the city. It was nice to see they used my photography as well. I must say I had a great time researching the piece, as drinking coffee and people-watching seems to be one of favorite pastimes. They didn’t edit or alter much of what I submitted. I had hoped to include a link to their website, but the piece has only appeared in print. To read the full text please follow the link below the article picture.

Istanbul — Turks have an uneasy relationship with history. Perhaps that explains Café Markiz in Istanbul’s old European district of Pera.  Long famous for its early 20th century art deco interior, it has been painstakingly restored to the original – except for the LCD televisions bolted to the windows, stridently bombarding passers-by on the famous pedestrian high street, Istiklal Caddesi, with hamburger specials aimed at attracting a high turnover of hungry tourists. While Markiz’s restored interior is otherwise unblemished, the spirit of the people that created it has departed. The cafe shares an entrance with an electronics superstore so they probably got a good deal on the enormous LCD screens.  But as for recreating a romantic experience of yesteryear, not quite!

Pera is the historic neighbourhood where Trotsky was once to be found.  He probably spent a considerable amount of time ducking in and out of the Armenian and Greek pasajlar, simultaneously trying to avoid Stalin’s agents as well as the White Russian émigrés he helped them evict. Pera Palas, the famous hotel that once hosted such notable figures as Agatha Christie, Mata Hari and Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal, has also recently been restored. Its coffee and atmosphere come at a price, however, and today sadly, it is no longer a bustling hive of intrigue. Unless you count welcoming Ben Affleck and his Hollywood entourage.

That’s not to say that the vibrant café culture of Istanbul’s European quarter has departed.  It’s just changed chairs and outfits.  Modern Turkey is a young country and today’s coffee drinkers take a certain pleasure in the vagaries of change. It’s all part of the new romance, especially in the Beyoglu/Pera district where a recent spat between café owners and the local municipality meant that no tables or chairs were permitted in the street. This posed a distinct problem as an indoor smoking ban had already pushed smokers to the pavements. Rather than abide by the ban, bars and cafés engaged in a kind of guerrilla war with the municipality. When vigilant staff got wind of the imminent approach of the Zabita, (civil enforcement police) they mobilized, snatching tables from beneath saucers and cups, and chairs from beneath bottoms. If they were not fast enough, the Zabita seized the tables and chairs and hauled them off in their vans. Either way, it was wise to get hopped up on caffeine and nicotine, as no one knew when they’d have to leap from their street-side stools. Perhaps that’s fitting for a nation that styles itself on a history populated by mighty nomads.

Karaköy, the European portside area where the Golden Horn and Bosporus intersect, is home to chic coffee joints nestled beside crumbly Orthodox churches. Karabatak, which currently occupies top dog position on the latté streetscape has struck an optimal balance of bohemians and expats, professionals and students spilling out onto the cracked asphalt.  A key component of café culture everywhere is people-watching.  And there’s plenty to look at here, from the hipster servers to the clientele beneath the vine canopy latticed above the street. A good indication of a café’s staying power is its ability to attract customers such as Emel Kurhan, a former fashion designer turned artist who has recently published a visual guidebook of Istanbul. Ms Kurhan says a café needs the right blend of “atmosphere, comfort, servers, music and coffee.”

Chain brands concentrate on catering to the now ubiquitous mobile worker, a person who wants efficiency and an outlet to recharge a laptop or tablet.  On the other hand, independent cafés are the places where individual style, good magazines and, best of all, lively conversation seem to deter middle-management types from imposing their overloud Skype calls on everyone else.

What is the preferred drink? That’s something of a toss-up nowadays. Latté/espresso culture has fully infiltrated the Istanbul street scene, especially for the young bohemians. However one drink comes first, and it is sipped by all ages and all classes. No, it’s not the elegantly served, somewhat gritty experience of a traditional Turkish coffee. It’s black Turkish tea. Served in a tulip-shaped glass, this drink has become the hot beverage of choice for any occasion or location.   Since the twilight era of the Ottoman Empire it has become available everywhere and anywhere. Some accounts claim it was a Sultan, tired of rewarding the uppity Yemeni province for good coffee and bad behaviour, others that it was World War I and the Allies’ control of the Suez Canal that imposed a lengthy enough break in the coffee supply chain and, consequently, on Turkish habits.

Today, there seems to be a conscious choice in establishments such as Karabatak in Karaköy and Holy Coffee in Çukurcuma to either not serve black tea in its traditional tulip-shaped vessel, or not to serve it at all. Perhaps the tinkle of the long latté spoon will be the death knell of Turkish tea.

But, who knows?  In Istanbul café culture belongs to street culture. And that’s constantly on the move.