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The smile that launched a thousand shish

Ever since it was founded in 1945 on the edge of Istanbul, people have flocked to eat at Beyti’s, the grill house that taught the city the importance of Sunday lunch. The journey, says Andrew Finkel, is always worth the effort

  • Beyti Güler, whose surname really does mean ‘he smiles’, serves the very comfort food we need to shake off those pandemic blues (photo Monica Friz)

It is a great operatic moment. The prisoners in Beethoven’s Fidelio emerge from the dungeon blinking into the light. “O welche Lust, in freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben!” “Oh, what joy, to breathe freely in the
open air!” Which makes sense as far as it goes, except you would think that after being in lockdown for so long they’d be singing about where to go for dinner.

It’s not that I expect the prisoners’ chorus from Fidelio to incant an ode to Currywurst, but the pandemic has planted a seed of gastronomic longing in us all – though for many the pleasure of being able to sit down with friends at a table coexists with anxiety about rubbing shoulders with strangers in public. So, while it is safe to assume that restaurants will again flourish as it becomes
safer to go out, I speculate that it will be the old favourites that do well, rather than those peddling innovation. As life struggles back to normal, we need to be reassured as much as entertained.

This hypothesis was endorsed the other day when a friend recounted the pure satisfaction of going out for the first time in ages to eat at Beyti, one of Istanbul’s most venerable institutions. It might never have been quite as famous as Topkapı Palace or the Blue Mosque, but it is an infinitely more agreeable place for Sunday lunch. The perfectly cooked lamb chop, the crispest and most elegant slice of döner kebab, the deceptive simplicity of the Beyti kebab itself, have attracted a steady stream of mums and dads, presidents and kings. It is a vast dining emporium, seating 500 people comfortably, and while its 11 dining rooms, high ceilings and marble stairs might once have seemed a tad grandiose, the spaciousness they now provide, as we sup sans face mask, is as comforting as the fare itself.

Yet, while I have always admired both Beyti Güler the man, and the restaurant that bears his name, the truth is that only rarely would I consider making the detour to Florya, near Istanbul’s old Atatürk Airport. The irony is that there is now a Maramaray metro stop nearby and it is far easier to get to than many places I think of as being less remote. On the other hand, it is no longer fashionable or even healthy to seek out huge portions of meat, and Istanbul palates have long ago shifted away from the largely unadorned style of Balkan grills to kebabs originating in the southeast of Turkey.

In Balkan cuisine the texture is of the meat itself – even meatballs are made from well-kneaded mince and have a slightly springy texture when you bite into them. In contrast to the onions and hot peppers accompanying southeastern grills (skewered, mainly minced lamb, highly spiced with a variety of flavourings from poppy seed to pistachio to fiery red pepper), Beyti serves pointedly plain accompaniments: a delicate pilav or a smooth mash of waxy potato that acts as a platform, not a foil, for the meat...

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Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 63
  • Flights of fantasy

    The artist Lithian Ricci has rescued a dilapidated old house on the Golden Horn – and transformed it into a magical work of art. Berrin Torolsan is dazzled. Photographs: Monica Fritz

  • Mistaken Identities

    A portrait coming up for sale at Sotheby’s in October is one of the finest portrayals of an Ottoman lady of the 16th century. Julian Raby peels away centuries of confusion to establish her true identity – as Süleyman’s wife, the legendary Roxelana

  • Saved by the royal bed

    Defeated by Russia in 1709, Charles XII of Sweden took refuge with the Sultan. Confined to camp, the King sent out Cornelius Loos, his military draughtsman, to capture the wonders of the Ottoman Empire. Only 50 of the drawings Loos brought back survive – rescued from beneath the King’s bed during a riot. Philip Mansel dives into a splendid book on Loos’s eye-opening work, and Robert Ousterhout marvels at his drawings of Ayasofya

  • The Marvellous Eye of the King’s Artist

    Three centuries ago Cornelius Loos, Charles XII’s military draughtsman, captured the atmospheric grandeur of Ayasofya’s interiors with panache and precision. Robert Ousterhout lingers over Loos’s peerless drawings

  • Rome’s Turkish Secret

    In 1833 Horace Vernet, the French Orientalist, created a fabulous ‘Turkish Room’ at the top of a tower in Rome’s Villa Medici. By Paolo Girardelli. Photographs: Daniele Molajoli

  • Going with the Grain

    For many peoples bulgur came before bread. It may now be ultra-fashionable, but versatile, nutritious bulgur was in fact the world’s first processed food. Berrin Torolsan celebrates the revival of this Anatolian staple and its nutty joys with a collection of intriguing recipes

  • Age of innocence

    The astrophotographer Tony Hallas spent an idyllic childhood in 1950s Turkey, where he first marvelled at the night sky. On his recent return, he found hulking cruise ships and Disneyfied destinations. Here, in the first of two articles, he looks back at the Turkey he left behind, and evocative family photographs capture a world waiting to be discovered

Buy the issue
Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
£600.00 / $782.02 / 25,881.29 TL
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