A drop of fat dripping down the shish that’s sitting, nonchalantly, in the fire. You know you’re being teased; you know the urge to resist has evaporated; you know you’re going to give in to that primal urge. There’s a good reason why the Turks are stereotyped as kebab lovers, and there’s also a good reason why middle-aged Turkish men develop ‘Turkish muscle’ or “Turkish balcony” around their belly.
There are many well-known restaurants that serve delicious kebab in Istanbul, but there are also some hidden gems that may not be as well known to tourists or locals who live outside of Istanbul. If you want to join in on the crazy that’s too good to miss, just keep on reading.
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Get acquainted with the word “Ocakbaşı”
You’ve probably never heard of the word “Ocakbaşı” before. Some kebab restaurants in Istanbul have names that end with “Ocakbaşı,” and you may be wondering what they’re all about.
The rough translation of ocakbaşı is “grill side” or “sit and eat by the barbeque” in English. At ocakbaşı restaurants, your meats and kebabs are cooked on a huge wood fire grill located in the seating area. A limited number of people can sit around the grill and watch the kebab master prepare and cook the kebabs and meats.
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How many different types of kebabs are there?
There are at least 110 different kebabs only in Turkey, and each one has its unique taste. Almost every city in Turkey has its own style of köfte and kebab.
You may find yourself stumped when it comes to choosing a kebab from dozens of different kebabs, so having a peek at our blog article on the popular types of Turkish kebabs might be useful: 20 Best & Most Famous Turkish Kebabs /w Photos
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The 12 Best Kebab Restaurants in Istanbul:
Important note: The kebab restaurants below are extremely popular among locals, and reservations are often necessary.
1. Adana Ocakbaşı
You may be wondering how this low-key restaurant has been attracting regular patrons since 1978. The secret is all in the taste. The kebabs at this restaurant are so magnificent that the famous food critic, wine connoisseur, and professor, Vedat Milor, have marked this restaurant as one of his favorites. He comments that the owner carefully chooses each cut of meat to ensure that what’s served is nothing less than the best quality products served as fresh as possible.
The mezes are limited, yet the shallots with the garlic and pomegranate molasses drizzled over it, with a touch of animal fat, made us wonder why Persephone simply settled with six pomegranate seeds over this starter.
Just as most of the other kebabs, the lamb shish and lamb chops fall apart in your mouth. On the side is cumin, thyme, and red pepper to spice it up as much as you want. The staff speaks little English, but that’s because this place is kept secret from tourists.
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Location of Adana Ocakbaşı:
It’s a good thing they have the banana and honey dessert because the dishes here will ruin your diet.
The yogurt kebab is a bit like the start of Snow White: a mess of tangy red on top of a snow-like yogurt base. The sirloin steak comes in a creamy sauce that’ll make anyone drool, and the Develi Meatball Kebab has such brilliant cheddar that you’ll never search for a hamburger again.
When it’s in season, you’ll find yourself unable to stop yourself from enjoying the loquat kebab. Otherwise, they have a selection of mezes for you to go crazy over. You have the normal, buttery hummus and the extra hot one with pastırma (dried/cured beef). The atom is a scorching hot meze with garlic, hot pepper, and crunchy walnuts. If the spice is too much, the purslane comes in a wonderful garlicky yogurt that’ll put out the fire. Further, if you’re constantly debating whether the thicker haydari or, the fresher, gooey tzatziki is better, you’re in luck: they have both.
Location of Develi:
3. Harbi Adana Ocakbaşı
A budget-friendly ocakbaşı restaurant that serves delicious kebabs and ribs that are so juicy, they’ll stain the lavash bread underneath. Even citizens of Adana cannot deny that their kebab is done brilliantly here.
The wine list is one thing, but the rakı list seems never to end. This is a great restaurant to order a bottle of Turkish raki, perhaps because it makes such a lovely companion to the spectacular views. If you’ve had too much, you might want to share a fruit plate with your family if you can resist the semolina dessert with ice cream.
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Location of Harbi Adana Ocakbaşı:
4. Şehzade Cağ Kebap
Create your own wrap with the savory onions sprinkled with tangy sumac, add a touch of spicy ezme, throw in all the succulent meat on the skewer (cağ kebap) and you have the star of your meaty fantasies. If you accidentally throw too much ezme, remember to order the buffalo yogurt, which is so thick, it’s like cheese.
Just like a döner kebab but cooked horizontally in a wood-fired oven instead of vertically in an electric oven, this kebab has more meat flavor due to fewer ingredients. Just meat, fat, and that’s about it. This place is a meat lovers paradise.
Further, the Erzurum dessert “Kadayıf Dolması” is perfection. Feel the zen as you watch people buzzing by.
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Location of Şehzade Cağ Kebap:
With his name branded upon a dish, Mr. Beyti has served an impressive list of celebrities since the 80s. Although he’s in his 90s, the grilled meatball, the delicious döner kebab, the grilled chicken, and the fabulous T-bone steak are still cooked to perfection under his oversight.
The veal ribeye steak is proof of the virtuoso chef’s talent, even when paired with a less-than-ideal glass of red wine. The mixed Turkish dessert plate is a genius idea for foreign ambassadors, but the crème caramel will have you flying into this country just to feel it glide in your mouth once more.
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Location of Beyti:
6. Şeyhmuz Kebap Salonu
Since 1975, this joint has been crafting the ultimate guide to cooking kebabs to perfection. Though this will look very much like a laid-back version of the döner place you have back home, the difference is in the taste.
Kebabs are not the only dishes here; the mixed pide is an absolute delight but the güveç – stewed meat with veggies – seems as though the gods themselves bestowed it upon us mere mortals.
Fortunately, the menu is in English with a hint of Russian and Arabic. Unfortunately, the lamb kebab on the bone may unleash your inner predator, and you might even growl at your partner. Hey, there are times to steal food, and then there’s food that’s too good to be stolen.
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Location of Şeyhmuz Kebap Salonu:
7. Hamdi Restaurant
Call the fire brigade because the Birecik kebab will knock your socks off with its blistering heat. The restaurant seems far too elegant to induce such a reaction, but this dish, ready in 10 minutes, is served with flavourful, amber-colored bulgur rice and a colorful onion display.
If, however, you can make reservations in advance, make sure you pre-order the kebab cooked in the sealed clay pot. Though they do add a hint of butter, the non-fat veal with the wondrous mix of vegetables is a healthy alternative to the usual fare. It’s more than gratifying for 4 people and such a show.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to pre-order, the tomato kebab is an aesthetic ideal. The meat alternating with the grilled tomatoes is so luscious that you’ll end up with juices running down your chin. The mezes are no less marvelous from the bright red Muhammara, fried eggplants and veggies hugged tightly by a tomato sauce, and the haydari to help ease the spicy flavor of kebabs.
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Location of Hamdi Restaurant:
8. Zübeyir Ocakbaşı
Is there a more scrumptious way to chase away vampires than the garlicky beyti kebab?
In the center of the beyti bowl is a brilliant yogurt dip, around which each flaxen-colored kebab wrap, with a sprinkle of green herbs, is interposed with grilled veggies like rays of the sun.
The menu hosts a large collection of raki, all of which go extremely well with the vibrant mezes, including a creamy zucchini dip, smoky roasted aubergines, sweet grilled onions, and a variety of cheeses.
Kidneys have never tasted good; however, the shish version is far more entertaining as you can watch it being grilled over the charcoal fire barbeque by the chefs – who are easy on the eyes.
The décor, also, is a marvel that cannot be raved about enough. You know you’re entering a classy spot when you’re welcomed with a puce-fuchsia blend entrance. Zübeyir Ocakbaşı is one of the most popular kebab restaurants in Istanbul and shouldn’t be missed.
Location of Zübeyir Ocakbaşı:
9. Fikret Yılmaz Ocakbaşı
If the tantalizing minced meat Adana kebab has always called out to you, but you knew you couldn’t handle its sassy spice, there’s a chili-free version called Urfa kebab. Furthermore, the Urfa kebab is so good here that even the locals say that they feel like they were just in Urfa. We also wouldn’t be surprised if the liver kebab’s recipe is the big secret of Area 51, considering how out-of-this-world extraordinary it is.
Each of the kebabs comes with grilled tomato, pepper, sumac gently resting upon the onions, a seasonal salad, and a lavash so you can play chef and create your own wrap. Yet, no matter how meat-crazed you may be, the mezes will take your breath away: especially the Söğürme eggplants or the onions – which are kissed by a naked flame to bring forth a sweetness to the typically savory dishes.
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Location of Fikret Yılmaz Ocakbaşı:
10. Kaşıbeyaz Bosphorus
Stunning views in a romantic, proposal-friendly restaurant usually mean the food is substandard, but not here. The lahmacun with pomegranate syrup and walnuts is a satisfying method to whet your appetite. It’s a little pricey, not because this is a celebrity favorite but because they really don’t skimp out on expensive ingredients: At first glance, the golden künefe looks green due to its pistachio topping.
If you really can’t pick, the mixed kebab will burn you up with its spicy Adana piece, cheer you up with the pistachio kebab piece, hit your 5-a-day with its veggie-embedded meat, and dazzle you with its pumpkin-colored chicken and remarkably attractive marinated lamb shish. The mixed kebab plate is also served with lively bulgur rice, and tangy sumac sprinkled onion salad, and the usual grilled veggies.
All the dishes are arranged like a Henri Mattise painting, especially the shepherd’s salad. Even the desserts based on seasonal fruits will have you raving.
Make your reservation here.
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Location of Kaşıbeyaz Bosphorus:
11. Yusuf Ustanın Yeri
The Bengal Tiger has the same reddish-orange color fur as the Adana kebab here. Perhaps that’s why it pairs so well with rakı, the aniseed-based liquor that’s colloquially known as milk of the lion (i.e., strong).
The intensity of the flavors is a marvel when the meat is as soft as cotton. The cute lahmacuns and the mouth-watering kibbeh are a delightful introduction to this family-run business.
The Turkish equivalent to the English pub, this fashionable spot has comfortable chairs where you watch the footy – or soccer if you’re American – on the screen. Combined with a menu that’s as tasteful in your mouth as it is in your pocket, this is the perfect mancave to bond with your friends.
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Location of Yusuf Ustanın Yeri:
12. Çiya Kebab
Most restaurants tend to fall under two categories: overly opulent with pretentious dishes or extremely humble with nostalgic tastes. This hidden gem on the Asian side falls between the two with the art on the wall that looks like it belongs in The New York Times.
The famous chef Musa Dağdeviren is most certainly in control as you’ll lose yourself in the intensity of flavor with delights such as the fragrant cheesy and walnut explosion of the Çiya kebab. The Kilis Kebab has the same awe-inspiring taste but with vegetables embedded in the meat. If red meat is not your thing, they have an Alinazik and Babagannuş made from chicken, and their small lahmacun comes with mushrooms.
The salads are also absolutely delicious at this kebab restaurant. This was our first introduction to zahter salad, which translates as mountain thyme, in its own spicy salad. The pomegranate molasses adds a sour-sweet kick, ensuring that this hits as many tastebuds as possible.
What more can you want? Well, other than the hard-to-find Kerebiç dessert, which is a bit like kibbeh – delicate semolina on the outside, crunchy pistachios inside all served on a frothy, foamy cream bed after two days of hard work to produce one plate.
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Location of Çiya Kebab:
When it comes to food, what’s better than a kebab? The above restaurants serve some of the best kebabs in Istanbul, and you won’t be disappointed.
However, we think there are plenty of other tasty Turkish dishes that should be on your list. That’s why we offer Istanbul food tours where you can sample the best of Turkish cuisine with an expert guide. Join us and taste some amazing local specialties like baklava, dondurma, tantuni, and Iskender kebab. You won’t regret tasting these delicious treats. Click here and book your tour today.
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