My solo dining in Istanbul started a few years ago when drained out of energy by the exorbitant workload of a consultant I was coming for long weekends to re-charge and savor Istanbul and its food. Those were my rendezvous with the city itself when I could have it all for myself. Istanbul reciprocated my intentions and proved a very friendly place for a solo female traveler.
Sun, good food, brief walks in Sultanahmet that supply your annual portion of male attention, numerous shopkeepers ready to please, hamam pampering, cooking classes and concerts you can attend without being intimidated by your couple-lessness. And on top of this – plentiful opportunities to meet other solo travelers when you feel like joining forces to attack a good eatery.
I have developed a few tactics to fully enjoy dining solo in Istanbul. First I discovered that upscale restaurants (and especially those at five-star hotels) are great for solo dining: you are kept busy by great food and attentive service. Experienced in catering to lone traveling businessmen the waiters know how to deal with solo diners. It is just a matter of you showing you are ready to this treatment. I always order a few small dishes to compose a meal, ask waiters about peculiar ingredients, consult on the wine, marvel at the arrived dish and comment on it. I feel I am conversing with the chef who is sending me messages on the plate from the kitchen. I also use fine dining occasions to learn about cooking: I take notes of the tastes combinations and ideas for my own kitchen experiment.
Second, a safe bet for solo dining are women-run places: eateries where women cook and often times serve their customers. Probably due to the customary roles of caring mothers women are genetically comfortable with serving anybody including solo travelers. Assuming the role of a host and somewhat a mother they make sure you feel welcomed and comfortable. It is very much the case for the many women-run eateries in Moda featuring home-made food as if opposing the male-run-man-frequented kebab shops elsewhere. Those women are positive, accommodating and hospitable – as a solo diner you will feel like you have visited a caring aunt if you have dined at a place run by such a woman.
And finally for the comfortable solo dining you need to pick right neighborhood and a place type. If as a solo woman you go to a pretty traditional neighborhood where foreigners are still a rarity then with all the local language capacity and positive attitude it will not be most comfortable place for you. If people do not serve many foreigners let alone solo women there is no way they know what exactly to do with you which makes them quite nervous. In Istanbul I have been to a lot of those kebab joints but my experience has never been quite the same as when visiting these places with a male friend. You will not be most comfortable eating alone at a neighborhood kebab house in Fatih but at a bistro in Cihangir you will feel more at ease.
I have started forgetting those strategies and the whole experience of solo dining as I have been living my recent dining and travel as a part of a couple. With Özgür I am learning local tricks to make the best of your dining in Istanbul and get on the right side of any waiter.
But recently I felt like reclaiming Istanbul and my right to get private with it so I went for food and a stroll in Karaköy. Solo. Karaköy is not a so easily definable neighborhood. It has a character of a transit area and a frontier in both literal and metaphorical way. Borderline of the Venetian colony during the Byzantium times, home to the enterprising minorities and the banking center in the Ottoman era, destination for the Russian nobility escaping the reprisal of the newly establish socialist regime in early 1900-s and now a stop for those peacefully cruising Mediterranean. Locals know Karaköy for its hardware shops, largest brothel in Istanbul or a famous baklava house. Sounds encouraging for a solo woman..
Yet this transit area is in transit itself. And there are more and more interesting stops for a solo traveler or diner. Just like the humble bistro Lokanta Maya run by an American-educated young Turkish female chef.
You walk in a small noisy place with the LEGO-like tables: they can be pulled together in front of the coaches arranged along the walls to accommodate a merry girls-get-together or can be separate to seat chattering couples or curios solo diners. Dried nuts, vegetables and spices used as minimalistic decorations, culinary magazines on the shelves and recipe of mucver, Turkish zucchini fritters (by which many regulars of Lokanta Maya swear) written on a large mirror – all suggest the atmosphere of culinary creativity and openness. Very different from the approach at the traditional Turkish eateries and food shops: “Which spices are in this mix?” and the cagily response, “Oh, there are 40 different ones“.
Lokanta Maya’s menu is brief and seasonal – salad of baked beetroot, cold starter of celeriac root and sea-bass, stuffed leek, pumpkin sweet sound only proper for December. And rather humble prices for the creations that would be priced double if served at a rooftop place with a Bosphorus view.
I started the meal with what looked like pesto served with the bread but appeared to be a paste of fresh spinach and white feta-like cheese with olive oil, the welcome surprise at Lokanta Maya. The salad that followed was a perfection: watercress and parsley sprinkled with wheat berry, green lentils, pomegranate seeds seasoned with olive oil an served with a thinnest slice of the toasted bread. Fresh, juicy, crunchy, colorful and fulling – what else a salad needs to be? After the salad I excitingly proceeded to Lokanta Maya’s pilaki levrek – sea bass stewed with vegetables. Ironically enough in Istanbul, city surrounded by two seas you need to be very lucky to find fish preparations other than simply grilled, deep-fried or baked in the oven. So the sea bass was a tasty novelty.
I doubted the dessert but ordered it. I did not expected much of a pudding with mastic – pudding is a pudding at most Istanbul restaurants. But the Lokanta Maya’s proved to the best milk pudding I have eaten. It was creamy, note of mastic was just right and it was served in a small glass with the sour cherry syrup on top. As you spoon the pudding the syrup trickles down so you eat the pudding with syrup all the way. Such a simple arrangement yet other places in Istanbul either serve their puddings plain or with the fruity part boringly jellied.
As I was getting through my pudding with the cherry syrup I kept thinking how simple it was but for some reason did not occur to anybody else to make it that way. And this is pretty much philosophy of Lokanta Maya: culinary simples that did not occur to anybody else.
Woman-run place with thought-provoking food? Yes, please for every solo female diner in Istanbul. At Karaköy, a neighborhood with no single female around? Well, Istanbul has witnessed the examples of how a neighborhood can be transformed with the appearance of an innovative eatery. The whole hip about the Kadikoy food market is very much driven by the popularity of Çiya: I see how many travelers to Istanbul make pilgrimage just to dine at Çiya and then stay to explore the market. Who knows maybe it will be Lokanta Maya that will make Karaköy a No.1 stop for the solo female travelers to Istanbul in a couple of years?
Useful address: Kemankeş Cad, No. 35A, Karaköy. Phone 212 252 68 84.
Hours: Mon: 12 pm – 5 pm, Tue-Sat: 12 pm-5 pm, 7 pm – 11 pm, Sun: Closed.