First published on April 30, 2020, and updated on January 19, 2023.
It is impossible to visit Istanbul without tasting the most classic flavors of traditional Turkish and Ottoman Cuisine during your stay at some of the best local Istanbul restaurants.
But, what are traditional Turkish dishes and where do locals savor the delicious flavors of their homeland? That’s easy if you know where to go! In order to feel (and eat) more like a local Istanbullu than a tourist, you must plan a visit to “esnaf lokantası” (tradesman restaurant). For the most part, these restaurants are reasonably priced, making them popular among students, tradesmen, and even white-collar workers. But the attraction doesn’t only lie in the value for money; the dishes served at “esnaf lokantası” are healthy and, as such, hold an important place in Turkish daily life.
All “esnaf lokantası” have three things in common: a variety of healthy dishes to choose from, which are already cooked and ready to serve, along with a warm and inviting atmosphere devoid of unnecessary luxuries. For these reasons alone they are a big part of Turkish food culture.
The list of 15 best local restaurants in Istanbul:
1. Lokanta Kru
Lokanta Kru is one of those places you’ll find yourself raving about decades after your visit. If you know someone who staunchly believes that healthy food tastes awful or is only suitable for rabbits, Lokanta Kru will quickly put that old rumor to rest. Their ever-changing menu will bring you seasonal dishes that are quite a sight to behold!
If you want all the benefits of glasswort but can’t stand the prominent seafood smell and taste, Lokanta Kru has a solution. Their Green Apple Glasswort (Yeşil elmalı börülce) dish is a slightly sour, slightly sweet delight.
Their creativity doesn’t end there. It’s hard not to fall in love with their strawberry artichoke salad (çilekli enginar salatası). If you like sour foods, their sour oven-baked pumpkin (ekşili fırın kabak) is just heavenly. If you’re not a fan of all these innovative tastes, they often have traditional grilled options – whether sirloin steak (bonfile), salmon, or chicken (tavuk).
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2. Balat Sahil Restaurant
Whether you want to explore the picturesque churches, mosques, and synagogues nearby or stroll up from the Golden Horn to the restaurant, you need to build an appetite before you enter. This is a seafood-based restaurant. It’s more of a Meyhane- a Turkish pub. Balat Sahil is the place to exorcise the blues and joyfully spend the night with rakı (aniseed-based liquor) and the numerous mezes.
Whether you want your fish fried, grilled, or floating in fish soup, this is the best restaurant to create seafood-based memories. There are non-seafood-based options for friends who can’t stand the taste.
The night starts with dinner and ends with a smile.
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3. Sadrazam Mahmut
You would never guess that this small, unassuming restaurant has some of the best food in Beyoğlu. However, don’t be fooled by the neighborhood – they’re closer to the Pierre Loti than Taksim Square. Their focus is on meat dishes, and they love to cook some of the more ‘difficult’ dishes in Turkish cuisine.
You can have the same old lamb chops for dinner. Sadrazam will blow you away with traditional dishes like köfte, chicken wings, and their kokoreç – an offal-based food. However, their specialty dishes might be the Sadrazam Pilavi (rice). With hints of Trabzon butter, succulent tomatoes, and bulgar rice cooked with tantalizing meat gravy. Your mouth will water just remembering it!
After visiting the local restaurants, you may want to stop by here for dinner. You won’t regret it.
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4. Köfteci Mustafa
Köfteci Mustafa focuses on one thing and one thing only: providing their customers with the tastiest dish they’ll eat during their Istanbul stay. The menu star is köfte (Turkish meatballs) with its meat cooked to perfection. If the ground meat dish isn’t to your liking, why not try a lamb chop or a shish? Nearly everything pairs perfectly with ayran (the Turkish yogurt drink). Vegans may be glad to know that not all the items on the menu contain meat – their bean salad (piyaz) is served without eggs. However, their dessert is rice pudding which has milk.
This is one of those quaint restaurants in the old city part of Istanbul. Despite the central location, they provide excellent food with good service without a hefty price tag.
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5. Fahri Usta
Fahri Usta is a beloved local gem. It’s one of those restaurants that’s hard to find. However, if you ask any of the merchants at the Grand Bazaar, or even the Spice Bazaar, which is a little walk away, they’ll be able to guide you. They serve the typical traditional Turkish foods you’ll find in any authentic Turkish kitchen at affordable prices. What they serve changes depending on the day but their bean salad on Saturdays pairs excellently with the meatballs (köfte).
Everything – from the chickpeas to the eggplant kebab – melts in your mouth that it’s hard not to overeat. The meatballs are juicy, and their cacık (cold yogurt drink with cucumbers) is refreshing. However, if you do overdo it, you may want to go for a quick stroll. Fortunately, the Blue Mosque is nearby! Though there aren’t many tables, it’s worth the wait.
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6. Şahin Lokantası
Şahin Restaurant is a quick walk from Taksim Square and a stone’s throw from cultural attractions like the Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, Galata Mevlevihane, and so forth. This is one of the many traditional restaurants that serve Turkish dishes that locals eat. This isn’t a fancy take on the traditional Turkish cuisine; it’s the real thing and, what’s better, is that the price tag isn’t fancy either.
If you like eggplants as much as we do, you may want to ask for the karnı yarık (car-knee yah-uhk). This is an eggplant stuffed with meat, and it’s supreme with buttery, velvety rice. The lentil soup has a smooth flavor, and the stuffed vine leaves are just divine.
This is one of those restaurants where you can sit amongst Turkish people in a cozy atmosphere and enjoy the generous portions of each dish you order. When you leave, your stomach may be stuffed, but your pocket won’t be.
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7. Kömür Lokantası
This is a worker’s restaurant where traditional Turkish food is cooked and placed behind the counter. Established in 1989, this ‘worker restaurant’ is based on several floors so you won’t struggle to find a table here. All you have to do is point to your desired dish. Moreover, prices are lower in a ‘worker restaurant’ than elsewhere. The olive oil dishes are usually vegetarian. However, we would recommend the Hasanpaşa köfte, the meatball dish with potato puree. The sütlaç (rice pudding) makes a lovely dessert. If you want to taste local dishes and be inducted into the local food culture, you may want to pop in.
They also prepare stuffed turkey for New Year’s Eve. If you’re in Istanbul for the winter, you can contact Kömür Lokantası ahead of time to pre-order your Christmas turkey with chestnut rice stuffing. As their meat-based dishes are prepared carefully by their butcher, and as they’ve been cooking for over 30 years, you can rest assured that Christmas or the New Year’s holiday will be reliable as far as the turkey is concerned.
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8. Tarihi Oktay Kurabiye Fırını
Oktay Bey somehow managed to turn kurabiye (cookies) into street food in the last century. Turkish cookies are supposed to be a dry, floury treat so that they pair well with the vibrant, pomegranate-red cup of Turkish tea. Established in 1934, this quaint spot in Istanbul deserves a place in the sections of travel magazines’ secret Turkey Travel Tips.
There are few seats available, so if you get there early enough, you might want to try some of the sponge cake with a cup of Turkish coffee. If you can grab one in time, the tahini çörek has a creamy, buttery feel without it being too sweet. However, if all the tables are taken, the mini-pizza and bagel make an excellent breakfast to take away.
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9. Paçacı Mahmut
Paçacı Mahmut was founded in 1978 with only 4 tables as Mahmut Usta Restaurant. If you enjoy trying offal dishes (which are very popular in Turkey), this restaurant will be one of your favorites in Istanbul. Offal has a long and special history in Turkish cuisine and Paçacı Mahmut Usta specializes in offal soups.
Offal soups are considered healing soups in Turkey and eaten across the country in homes as well as served at restaurants. Popular offal soups are tripe soup and beef cheek and lamb trotter soup, and this restaurant serves some of the best in the city.
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10. Karaköy Lokantası
Karaköy Lokantası serves a great variety of food, from beef cheek soup to grilled octopus. You will find pot-style Turkish food for lunch and mezes for dinner. You will need a reservation (especially for dinner) and can you can also order alcoholic beverages. Make your reservation here.
Related content: The 10 Best Karaköy Restaurants (2022 updated)
11. Bankalar Lokantası
The menu at Bankalar Lokantası changes daily, depending on what seasonal produce the restauranteurs are able to source. You’ll find a never-ending variety of fish and kebabs in addition to the traditional pot-style Turkish food. One of the most popular restaurants in Karaköy for tradesmen and bank workers, the restaurant’s design is just as simplified as their traditional dishes.
If you are in search of traditional Turkish food close to Istanbul’s tourist areas, Bankalar Lokantası is a great option as it sits just a 15-minute tram ride from Sultanahmet. While you are in search of the best local Istanbul restaurants, Karaköy neighborhood can also offer you a great time exploring the popular suburb.
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Taste of Two Continents Tour
-Secret local restaurants & one-of-a-kind boutique markets
-Visit locals favourite Kadikoy market
-Taste the world famous Turkish ice-cream & baklava
-It is not just food, it's Turkish culture with an expert's insider view
12. Hünkâr Lokantası
Hünkâr Lokantası has been serving up delicious Turkish food since the 1950s. Although it is commonly referred to as one of the most expensive and luxurious tradesmen restaurants in Istanbul, we can’t help but add it to our list of best local Istanbul restaurants.
Nişantaşı is already one of the priciest suburbs of Istanbul with design shops, luxury world brands, and expensive housing. At Hünkâr you will still find traditional Turkish food such as lamb shoulder dishes, a variety of soups, pastries, and vegetable dishes. The iconic Ottoman dish “Hünkar Beğendi” is also one of their specialties. Be sure to finish your Turkish food tasting experience at Hünkâr Lokantası with “Sütlü Kadayıf”, a light Turkish dessert consisting of milk and shredded wheat.
Related content: 10 Best Nişantaşı Restaurants: Complete Guide (2021 Updated)
13. Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası
It is very easy to reach Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası as it is just a short walk from the Kadıköy ferry station. This local restaurant continues to serve some of the best examples of Ottoman and Turkish food, as they have been since the very early 1900s. Their menu still represents Ottoman and Turkish food culture accurately.
Not only you can find the traditional pot-style Turkish food here, but you will also be blessed with a variety of soups, grills, and kebabs. Their desserts are worthy of a mention, too, and you shouldn’t conclude your meal without tasting one. Their specialty is Yanya köfte – a special meatball wrapped in thin slices of fried eggplant before being grilled with a slice of tomato on the top and served with a delicious sauce.
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14. Nato Restaurant
This restaurant is one of the best local Istanbul restaurants and it was opened in 1952 to celebrate Turkey’s inclusion in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). NATO is quite a popular restaurant and it can be difficult to find a table at lunchtime.
The restaurant closes once all the food is sold, so you should arrive early to ensure you try their fantastic traditional Turkish food. If you are a carnivore do not forget to try their “saç kavurma” and döner kebab.
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15. Kanaat Lokantası
Kanaat Lokantası is a family-run business and many people in Istanbul have formed fond memories over their 80-year long history. Locals and visitors alike agree that their food is still delicious even after such a long time, which gives many people an excuse to visit Üsküdar just for this reason alone.
Olive oil dishes (mostly known as light and vegetable-based dishes in Turkey) and desserts are famous at this restaurant. Some other dishes you can find here are traditional Turkish dishes chickpeas with meat, stuffed celery, green beans, and chicken pudding. Please note that credit cards are not accepted at this restaurant and you can only pay in cash.
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If you find yourself in Istanbul and are looking for a great local dining experience, be sure to check out one of these restaurants. And if you want to explore even more of the city’s culinary scene, join us on one of our food tours – we visit some of the best places that locals love to eat!
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