There are many types of eateries in Turkey – some large, some small, some clean and some very, very dirty. When having newly arrived in Turkey, deciphering the menu types, prices and quality of a restaurant can be a hassle. Here is a quick and honest look at restaurants in Turkey.
Starting at the bottom of our food chain is the “tabldot” restaurant. These restaurants, especially popular in areas highly populated with students (such as Ankara), serve food in a very cafeteria-style setting: you pay for a 3 or 4 course meal, grab your tray and silverware, move quickly through the line telling what you want to eat, and sit. Moving quickly is the key though as these style restaurants tend to be extremely cheap and popular with college kids. In addition, those who serve the food want you in and out of the line as quickly as possible so they can take in more customers. The good side of it all – it’s less than $4.00 for a hearty 4 course meal and soda. However, do be warned that the quality and cleanliness of the food tends to be less than standard (but for that price, who’s complaining?).
Next, we come to the, also inexpensive, “dönerci”. A dönerci restaurant will mainly serve two types of “döner” – chicken and beef. Turkish “döner” is what many Greeks refer to as “gyros” – a large piece of meat on a skewer cooked upright in a special roaster. Both the chicken and beef varieties are served one of two ways, either in a large crusty loaf of fresh baked bread or on a thick fresh pita with onions, parsley and tomato on the side with a fork and knife. Either way, they’re all delicious. Some “döner” places will also offer “lahmahcun” – a very thin piece of dough with a ground beef mixture smeared on top and cooked to perfection in a stone oven. Be warned though, the source of most “lahmahcun” meat is unknown, so make sure you get it from somewhere well trusted like the Turkish franchises Hacioğlu or Aba Piknik so you can enjoy your meaty treat with peace of mind.
Third on our list of restaurants in Turkey is the “pide evi” (pita house) and “aile lokantası” (family restaurant). Both tend to be very similar, if not the same. They both will usually serve Turkish pizza (pide) and kabobs; they’ll also have a few types of salad to offer as an appetizer and a couple kinds of dessert. However, it’s important to remember that not all pizza and kabobs are created equally – some places may have better pide, others better kabobs — and once you’ve discovered a dish you like, it’s a good idea to try that same dish at a couple of places to determine which place prepares it the best. These restaurants will most always bring salad and bread (or “boş pide” aka plain pita) to the table as an appetizer free of charge and offer tea after the meal. An important word in Turkish to understand here would be “ikrâm” meaning “gift” or “complementary”. If the waiter tries to communicate with you and your Turkish isn’t good, “ikrâm” is definitely a word to look out for. With the price as low as $8 per person for a main course, drink and dessert, you really can’t go wrong by stopping in at the corner family restaurant.
If you like kabobs but are looking for something a step up on the atmosphere and price ladder, go for a “kebap evi” (kabob house). The “kebap evi” menus mimic those of the “pide evi” and “aile lokantası”, but their specialty will almost always be kabobs and the kabobs will be of higher quality meat, thus making the price range medium to expensive. They usually have a wider range of appetizers and more main course choices, but they may not always have the best of dessert and don’t always offer an “ikrâm” service (especially for tea), so be warned before you splurge – you very well may be better off visiting a cafe that specializes in desserts after your meal has finished. Not only will it give you the chance to save a couple of bucks, the dessert and tea will most likely be better than what was to be offered back at the restaurant.
For those of us who aren’t big red meat fans and can afford the medium to expensive price range, a “balık evi” might be the appropriate choice. Specializing in fish, this is the type of place to go to if you like broiled, baked or fried fresh and saltwater fish. If it’s shrimp or lobster that you desire, know that these (especially lobster) are not things eaten by common people in Turkey. Crustaceans are considered a luxury, therefore expensive and not served at all “balık evi” restaurants, only the extremely upscale ones. Keep in mind, if you’re in a location near the sea (Istanbul, Izmir or Antalya, for example) the price may be a bit lower than places not along the sea (such as Ankara, Konya, or Sivas), but still upscale.
Our final and most expensive restaurant type is that which serves any type of foreign food. After being away from home for some time I began to miss the comforts of home – especially American treats. At the sight of anything closely resembling food from home I would pull out my wallet no matter how much of a splurge it was. Know this: in Turkey, fast food chains are almost everywhere, but the price is very high and the portions extremely small compared to home. This rule also goes for other types of food including Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Indian and Italian. Nine times out of ten these places are very expensive (I once ate at a Chinese buffet in Ankara for $25, not including drinks – which are rarely served with free refills). Also, they’re usually not as authentic as one would like to find. Take my advice – if you’re handy in the kitchen it would be more worth your money to buy the ingredients yourself and replicate whatever it is you desire in your own kitchen according to your taste buds. In the end, you’ll get more bang for your buck and save.
No matter what your tongue craves, there is always another option right around the corner to fit anyone’s budget, style and taste in Turkey. Just remember to bring your pocket dictionary and sense of adventure and you’ll do just fine… oh, and don’t forget your wallet!