Anthony Bourdain was an inspiration to me, as I am sure he was to many other travelers. One seemingly miniscule (but profound enough that I’m writing an article about it) detail of his trip to Istanbul on an episode of his old show piqued my curiosity about a wonderful thing: pide. As he was wont to do, Bourdain elevated this somewhat simple dish — kind of a flatbread, pizza, khachapuri hybrid — to almost mythical status for me, and I didn’t even need to be there tasting it to understand its place of influence in the compendium of Turkish cuisine. He wasn’t just eating the dish and making me extremely jealous in the process (although that happened, too); he was showing how, where, and by whom it was prepared, which made the dish and the destination all the more tantalizing.
As a result of the Turkish diaspora, pide has become a somewhat trendy dish in Europe, but food critics maintain that the best is still found within the country itself. There, one will encounter the greatest variety and the truest incarnations of the dish, which can be as simple as a flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds or as sumptuous as an open tart topped with Turkish peynir cheese, spinach, and marinated lamb, encased in the folded-over edges of buttery bread. To top it all off, the more extravagant variations sometimes have an egg cracked over them during the last seconds of the baking process, allowing the whites to flavor the ingredients and the yolk to stay runny and delicious for those last bits of bread. Other times, the ingredients are baked inside, and the exterior is made crispy.
As with every great culinary staple, different chefs and establishments interpret the dish in their own way. As much as I love bread and pizza, eating one version of either dish for the rest of my life would get pretty old, pretty fast. Pide is a chief staple of Turkish cuisine, and is subsequently available at most of the restaurants that you’ll visit during your time in the country. Of course, to taste the best stuff, you’ll have to go where they specialize. Restaurants that devote themselves to the art of making pide are known as pidecisi, but there are plenty of other eateries whose divine pide is part of a wider menu. These institutions dot the landscape all over Istanbul’s vast urban area, but luckily for visitors, many of the best and most reputable pide joints are centrally located, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Bazaar. Since there are so many, we thought we’d help you identify the best.
We’ll work our way centrally, but start with a local favorite in the Besiktas neighborhood (known for its fanatically supported soccer team) where meat lovers will rejoice. At Karadeniz Döner Asım Usta, they combine pide with another staple of Turkish cuisine: döner. They slice thin, juicy pieces of the meat from an impressively sized rotating hunk of the stuff, and then place them onto their homemade pide, served thick and soft. They begin serving this delicacy every day at 10:30 a.m., and as this humble operation is a well-respected Besiktas institution, one can typically expect lines to form out of the door around lunchtime. While 10:30 might be a bit too early for the carnivores amongst us, do be conscious of the rush — the place closes as soon as the day’s supply of meat is exhausted, which you don’t want to happen right before your very eyes. This place is cheap, fast, and as local as it gets — you could hardly ask for more.
Of course, we want the pide to be the center of attention, without sacrificing quality for its easy marketability to tourists. Hocapaşa Pidecisi, in the Sirkeci neighborhood, is a conveniently located and locally loved dive for the divine dough. Widely regarded as one of the finest pidecisi in Istanbul, this is a small and no-frills establishment that is as straightforward about its food as it is about its decor. The usta, or chef, makes every piece of the flatbread to order, right before your eyes. There is a wide selection of flavors available here, from simple concoctions of Turkish cheese and spinach to spicy and delectable kavurma (your choice of meat sauteed with spices and onions) that melts into the bread. All dishes are served traditionally with pickles, chilis, and a selection of fresh drinks and juices, the best of which is ayran, a yogurt drink similar to an Indian lassi that will soothe and refresh after a spicy meal. Hocapaşa has served up all of this since 1964, and at reasonable prices, too: the most expensive pide on the menu is only 20 Lira ($3). This is an unmissable piece of Istanbul’s exquisite old town.
On the other side of the Grand Bazaar and just off of Sultanahmet Square is Karadeniz Aile Pide & Kebap Salonu (you will see the word Karadeniz a lot in Istanbul — it’s the Turkish word for the Black Sea, so I promise I’m talking about different restaurants). This is another traditional establishment, and a hidden gem in an area that is understandably flooded with tourist traps. Casual and eclectic, you can enjoy inexpensive (about the same price as Hocapaşa above) pide in peace on a quiet side street in one of the city’s busiest areas, dining inside on tables covered in regional patterned rugs or outside on checkered picnic cloths. This eatery’s pide is crispy on the outside with the ingredients baked in, and they cater to carnivores and vegetarians alike; popular stuffings range from minced lamb meat to potato and sheep’s cheese. Make sure to fit in this meal around your visit to the Blue Mosque, a short walk away.
Also located in the Sultanahmet area are favorites Ozlem Karadeniz Restaurant and Seyhmuz Kebap. Both specialize in the ultimate form of “Turkish pizza,” lahmacun. The former also takes pride in their massive portions of pide, which are cooked alongside their pizzas in a massive, authentic wood fire oven (called a tas firin) that sits just behind the main counter. Though it is casual and cheap like most pidecisi, the welcoming staff and highly social owner will make you feel like a guest in their own home, and the cozy interior decorated with pictures of Istanbul landmarks will immerse you in the city from the comfort of a backstreet. Meanwhile, Seyhmuz is known for its fast service, serving up fresh dishes in less than five minutes. While it does cater well to the take-away crowd, there are a few seats inside where you can watch the chefs at their work, speedily assembling the ingredients on the large lunch counter into Turkish delicacies.
Finally, decide for yourself if the finest pide in Istanbul is indeed to be found at Fatih Damak Pide, named for the nearby Fatih Mosque. Very popular with locals, you may have to contend with a wait during peak hours, but your patience will be rewarded with a free samovar of the locale’s famous Turkish tea if you order pide. The flavors and toppings are similar to those you might see at other pidecisi, but this restaurant does add individual flare and encourages customers to do the same: not only is there a rolled-up version of pide available (the Turkish equivalent to a calzone, if you will), but they also allow you to design your own pide from a mix of all the available toppings. Doing so will cost you a bit more than at other places on this list, but overall a meal for two to three people should still run less than 100 Lira ($15). End your meal with their dessert specialty, a classic pumpkin pie made from locally grown ingredients.
Turkish cuisine is vibrant, diverse, and ubiquitous in Istanbul, with more establishments for kebabs, döner, and pide than you could ever visit. As in many places with a high volume of tourists, there is always the risk that certain businesses will try to capitalize on this overwhelming selection by overcharging for standard fare. None of us want to get caught in the tourist trap, but conversely, being the only tourist in a restaurant full of locals can be daunting. With this list, we’ve tried to highlight establishments that are traditional, tasty, and welcoming. Hopefully, some easy decisions like these will enrich your trip as a whole, not to mention entice your taste buds. When it comes to chowing down on some buttery, eggy pide, it’s best to remember one of my favorite Bourdain quotes: “your body isn’t a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
Did we miss any of your favorite places to grab pide in Istanbul? Let us know in the comments below!