A guide to the various types of eating places you'll find in Turkey.
One of the joys of eating out in Turkey is that there’s no need to order your whole meal at once. It’s perfectly acceptable to order one or two small dishes, see how you go, and order more later if you’re still hungry or tempted. Be careful of nibbles which appear on your table without you having ordered them; that innocent looking dish of nuts or olives may turn up on your bill at a ridiculous price. On the other hand, don’t be paranoid about being ripped off – it is quite the Turkish thing to keep the food rolling until you say you’ve had enough. For example, if you order a plate of fruit to accompany your rakı, the fruit will usually be replenished for no extra charge. When in doubt ask ‘bedava mi?’ (is it free?).
This is the basic Turkish restaurant, varying from starkly simple to homely and charming. The food on offer is mostly hazır yemek (ready food) laid out in dishes kept warm on hot ash or in a bain-marie. Even if there is a menu (and usually there isn’t), you should go up and choose whatever takes your fancy. Don’t feel the need to pile up a plate straight away. It’s fine to choose one or two dishes and order more as you feel like it. A normal spread will include a soup, an eggplant dish, a chickpea stew, maybe some beans and a few meat dishes. Look out for seasonal vegetable dishes, which are delicious with garlic yoghurt. There will always be pilav available, either rice, bulgur or both. You might get (or you can ask for) chilli peppers, lemon and raw onion with your hot dishes – these are to refresh your palate in between tastes. Though you can’t count on getting dessert in a lokanta, it’s fairly common to find kadayıf (dough-based dessert) and rice pudding. A city lokanta’s core trade is working people and shoppers looking for lunch. On the highways, look out for dinlenme yeri (roadhouse eateries), open 24 hours in many cases, and serving surprisingly good ready-made dishes.
The line between a restoran and a lokanta can be blurry – a low end restoran is pretty much a lokanta under alias. But, as you move up the price scale, closed kitchens, menus and alcohol will appear. And where there is alcohol, there is meze. A cold meze display may be paraded on a trolley and you can select your desired morsels. There’s a lot of crossover with main dishes at a lokanta and a restoran, but you’re more likely to find pirzola (chops), biftek (steak) and ‘international’ meat dishes like schnitzel at a restoran.
Kebabç› & Köfteci
Kebabç› are low-key, cheap eateries focused on grilled or roasted meat, but usually offering soup, simple salads, cold drinks and ayran. Don’t expect tablecloths or waiterly flourishes – these are quick-fire joints, specialising in high turnover and no-frills nourishment. A köfteci is similar in style, but the food staple is broiled meatballs rather than grilled kebabs. If you spot the word ocakbası in the menu or the eatery’s signage, it means the food will be cooked in front of you.
The Turkish version of the pizza parlour is a slice of heaven if you’re after quick and tasty belly fuel. Choose your lahmacun from cheese and various meat toppings and sit back with an ayran or a cola, or get a lahmacun paket (wrapped to go). Look for places using woodfire ovens – the pide always tastes better.
A börekçi is often a tiny window in the wall or a cupboard-sized kiosk with a few stools and benches. The only stuff on sale here is a few different types of börek and a small selection of cold drinks, ayran always among them. They’re a great place for a quick breakfast or lunch or a between meal carbo tweak. Börekçi stock is often sold out by mid afternoon.
It’s normal for a main meal at a restaurant to lead onto the tatlıcı, a specialist dessert place. As well as the classic tatlıcı, where you can overdose on baklava, helva and lokum, look out for the muhallebici for milk-based puddings, and the pastahane (or pastanesi or baklavacı) for baklava, European-style cakes, ice cream and any local specialities.
More guides to eateries in other countries here.
This article was originally posted Sep 2010. It was updated Nov 2012.