’The country needs Pandeli,’ Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s charismatic prime minister in the 1950s, is said to have remarked in 1955 when he heard that Pandeli Çobanoğlu, the ethnic Greek owner of the best-loved fish restaurant in Istanbul, then in the Balıkpazarı down by the Golden Horn, was thinking of giving up the restaurant business and – presumably – leaving Turkey.
Pandeli’s despair was understandable. He had just lost his entire livelihood at the age of 68 when his famous restaurant – which originally stood on the waterside where the Istanbul Ticaret University is today – had been burnt down in the anti-Greek riots of 6th and 7th September 1955. Just under three decades of work had gone up in smoke in the bitterest possible way.
Born in the central Anatolian province of Niğde in 1887, Pandeli Çobanoğlu had moved to Istanbul at the age of 13 in 1900. His father had been a shepherd in Niğde, hence the surname, and worked as a hamal (the now happily extinct profession of street porters). Pandeli became a cook and it seems that by 1901, he was already running a restaurant.
Pandeli spent much of the war years – which in Turkey lasted a decade – in Niğde. In 1926, after the War of Independence, he set up his eponymous restaurant in Istanbul. It stood three storeys high throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
Those decades were somber and impoverished years for Istanbul, shorn of its imperial and cosmopolitan glory and not yet a wealthy industrial centre, but they were a golden age for Pandeli and his customers. The fame of his restaurant brought a seemingly endless stream of famous customers and not so famous ones. Not only was the food good but Pandeli knew that a successful restaurateur needs to have a strong rapport with his customers.
He would go from table to table, talking in his accented Turkish to the diners, cracking jokes, and frequently – Turkey was a poor country then – telling favoured ones that they need not pay for their dinner that night but could wait until the beginning of the month when they collected their salaries. For most people who mattered in Istanbul those days were employees of the state.
One of those who was let off his bill in this way was a young officer called Mustafa Kemal. In the 1920s he returned with an entourage for the first time as President of the newly established Republic of Turkey. The story which Pandeli later told was that, somewhat cheekily, he told his president “Don’t bother mister, you can pay at the start of the month.” He must have been very sure of his friendship. Atatürk roared with laughter and told his friends “That’s why I love this kafir.” (We can surely be confident that he would not have used this word if he and Pandeli had not been on very close terms as far as bantering went.) The joke was a bitter-sweet aftermath to a painful clash of nationalities. They would erupt again disastrously in 1955.
By then Atatürk had been dead for 17 years and the leader of the new Turkey was Adnan Menderes, who was a fierce opponent of the Greeks – the man who ordered crumbling churches to be demolished across Turkey and strange-sounding place-names to be Turcified, wiping out aeons of history.
Menderes, however, like Atatürk before him had a soft spot for Pandeli and his restaurant. When Pandeli wrote to Celal Bayar, then president of the Republic, and the governor of Istanbul, Fahrettin Kerim Gökay, asking for permission to rebuild his restaurant, he received a gift from the prime minister: the blue tiled rooms above the north entrance to the Istanbul Mısır Çarşısı or spice market. The original Pandeli’s restaurant continued at the side of the Golden Horn. It has now long vanished under the bulldozers and the university stands in its place. I had a not very distinguished meal there many years ago. To judge by my experience the post-1955 quayside restaurant was not really worthy of its name, if indeed it was actually entitled to it. It has now long vanished and the university stands in its place.
But the chef himself moved to the spice market and there amid its chilly-looking blue tiles continued to work wonders in Istanbul high cuisine, levrek kağıtta (Sea bass cooked in paper) being an especial delicacy. The spice market restaurant became an indispensible stopping off place for lunch when the world’s celebrities and politicians visited Istanbul – and in many cases, their visits were recorded photographically and framed on the wall. The Queen of England, and the King of Spain, Audrey Hepburn, Robert de Niro, Madeline Allbright, Robert Redford, and Andrew Mango are among the lunchtime customers. Prices were not low but there was general agreement that the experience was worth it.
Pandeli Çobanoğlu lived for 12 years and saw the Mısır Çarşısı Pandeli’s blossom into an institution in its own right. One of his staff succeeded him and it looked as if the restaurant might go on for ever.
But the Spice Market is currently being given a make-over to ensure that it impresses future decades of tourists and the repair work has meant that the restaurant, already hit by the near-collapse of the tourist industry, is currently closed. This week its management warned the Turkish media that the closure may have to be permanent.
If so it will be a very sad end to a story which has lasted now for 115 years as well as a blow to those who enjoy a classic lunch time experience in a place which conveys the very essence of the changes in Istanbul life over the last century.
Atatürk’s other famous restaurant, Karpiç, at Ulus in Ankara, the heart of the capital at night in the early years of the Republic, closed down in 1953 and its building has long since been swept away by multistorey concrete structures. The Mısır Çarşısı will presumably not suffer this fate, but some of Istanbul’s savour will vanish if Pandeli’s disappears.
David Barchard is a regular contributor to Cornucopia.