In the Taksim area of Istanbul, especially all along İstiklal Street, there are several different restaurants to choose from, ranging from fast food to high-end gourmet cuisine. I rarely had a bad meal or bad experience at any restaurant in the area. Taking all restaurants into consideration, my favorite spots were the street vendors and Turkish fast food joints.
Let’s start with the carts. Along İstiklal Street and in Taksim Square, you will see several carts selling a round bread covered in sesame. This is simit, and it’s a great snack, especially in the morning when it’s soft. If you wait until the afternoon or evening, it might be as hard as a rock.
Once in a while, you will see sandwich or köfte carts. In the winter, many of the carts will sell kestane (roasted chestnuts) or grilled corn on the cob.
At the very front of İstiklal Street at Taksim Square, next to the Burger King, you will notice several fast food places selling döner. This is shawarma or gyros, Turkish style – thin slices of beef or chicken wrapped in flatbread (dürüm) or stuffed into a half loaf of bread (ekmek arası). These places are very popular for döner, especially among tourists, but in my opinion, they aren’t that great. The meat is dry and they don’t taste as great as other places. I would recommend a couple places down by Demirören Mall (check the map below).
Those places next to the Burger King are good for something – ıslak burgers! Think White Castle meets Sloppy Joes. They are delicious, especially in the middle of the night. The original is from Kızılkayalar, although pretty much every döner shop or fast food outlet will sell them.
My favorite place for dürüm kebabs is Melekler Dürüm. It’s a block off İstiklal near the Taksim end. At night after the bars close, there are usually no tables to be found. That’s a good sign – it’s excellent. With kebabs, you can choose from Urfa (not spicy) and Adana (spicy). I prefer the Adana, and I like to wash it down with a nice, cold ayran. If you’re brave, you can try the şalgam (turnip juice).
Tantuni is another favorite of mine. It comes from the Mediterranean city of Mersin. It’s spiced minced meat in flatbread. Think Turkish tacos. A plate of parsley and very hot peppers is served with it if you want to roll it up in the sandwich. Again, I recommend drinking an ayran with it. My absolute favorite place for tantuni is Emine Ana. It was introduced to me by Ayşegül in 2010 and I became a regular ever since. I took my mom here when she visited me in 2011 and she said it was her favorite meal, even over the best restaurants we ate at.
Lahmacun is Turkey’s answer to pizza. It’s minced meat and spices on flatbread. You can roll it up with parsley, tomatoes, and onions, sprinkle some lemon on it, and eat it kind of like a wrap. You can find it anywhere for just a few lira, and there’s no specific place I can recommend. Try a mercimek çorbası (lentil soup) with your lahmacun.
Pide is another Turkish version of pizza. It is a thicker pita bread with a variety of toppings to choose from, including cheese, minced meat, sucuk (sausage), vegetables, even a fried egg. Like lahmacun, you can find pide anywhere. I happen to like Sofram Pide Bank. It’s a dive, and it’s not the best pide, but I really enjoy the service I get there.
Finally, you will see lots of guys walking around with trays of mussels on ice. These are called midye dolma (stuffed mussels). I wouldn’t eat them off the street if I were you, but I do recommend trying them from Şampiyon Kokoreç at Balık Pazarı. You can get “bir porsiyon” (a portion) for 5TL. Squeeze some lemon on them, then use the empty shell to scoop out the stuffed part of the shell. Şampiyon also has good kokoreç. Read my entry about kokoreç here.
If those places fail you, the chains Bambi Cafe, Etiler Marmaris, and Marmaris Büfe can be found near Taksim and scattered throughout Istanbul. You can find tost, döner, köfte, burgers, and more at their branches.
There are other types of Turkish fast foods to try, but I didn’t list them here because they are more famous at other locations in Istanbul.