There's a lot more to Turkish cuisine than döner-- as much as I love döner. From white-tablecloth tasting menus to finger-licking street food, Istanbul has something for everyone. But there are three restaurants I crave more than any other, and in my humble opinion are mandatory stops for any Istanbul itinerary.
Tourists in Turkey often experience what's been dubbed "kebab fatigue." Yes, kebabs are delicious, but man does not live on grilled meat alone. And there's no greater cure for kebab fatigue than the most classic of Turkish lunches: kuru fasulye. This white bean and tomato sauce dish is a Turkish staple and available at practically any restaurant, but no one does kuru fasulye better than Fasuli in Tophane. (Visitors staying near Sultanahmet might find their Sirkeci location more convenient.)
There are many regional variations of this hearty bean dish, but Fasuli does the Black Sea version: thick and buttery with chunks of beef. The beans are creamy, not mushy, and perfectly seasoned. Be sure to order the traditional sides: rice, pickled peppers, raw onion, and cacık, a yoghurt dish flavored with cucumber and mint.
Musa Dağdeviren's Kadıköy eatery has been profiled in publications as prestigious as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and for good reason. I've been dozens of times, have never eaten the same thing twice, and have never been disappointed. Simply put, the traditional Ottoman recipes Dağdeviren has resurrected are available nowhere else. Memorable dishes include green almonds and lamb, cooked in sour cream- a pungent dish that repulsed Julie but had me scraping the bowl.
The best way to enjoy Çıya Sofrası is tapas-style with a group of adventurous friends. For more conventional Turkish fare, the woodfired lahmacun are as good as you'll find anywhere. Whatever you order, be sure to pair it with a foamy glass of açık ayran and save room for one of Dağdeviren's famed desserts, which change seasonally.
Şehzade Çağ Kebap
At first sight, one might think that çağ kebap was horizontally-oriented döner, but it is so much more. This culinary rarity hails from the Northeastern city of Erzurum, but an exquisite version can be found in Istanbul's Sirkeci neighborhood at Şehzade Çağ Kebap. Çağ kebap is made from lamb, turning on a spindle next to a wood-burning oven. The smoke-infused morsels are slow cooked to an improbably perfect combination of crispy on the outside, practically melting on the inside. Served on skewers with a side of lavaş, sumac-covered onions, and creamy water buffalo-milk yoghurt, it's shamelessly indulgent comfort food, best followed by a glass of çay before moving on to the nearby Spice Bazaar.