Meyhane Culture in Istanbul: Rakı, Meze, and Its History

If you are on your way or planning to visit Istanbul, make sure that you are completely free one evening. Why? Because you must go to a Turkish meyhane and enjoy yourself there with other locals who probably will sing along with the playing songs. Let’s dive deep into learning the Turkish meyhane culture.

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What is Turkish Meyhane?

Meyhane is a traditional Turkish tavern where people eat, drink, and sing together. For this reason, Turkish meyhanes are directly connected with social interactions. A group of friends can go to meyhane for a celebration, people go to meyhane to get know to each other, and some couples prefer a meyhane date because it’s more serious. Shortly, Turkish people go to meyhane to connect with people.

What is Turkish Meyhane Culture?

Turkish meyhanes are different from pubs or clubs in terms of entertainment. Mostly at the end of the night, when people get tipsy, everyone may sing a well-known song and some may even dance. But that’s all, then everyone goes back to their tables and continues the night.

The History of Turkish Meyhane Culture

Turkish meyhane culture goes back to the ancient times of the Mediterranean region. Greeks and Romans, for example, had taverns for entertainment and drinking. During Byzantium’s reign, there were different meyhanes which were called “tavernia”, “pouskareia”, and “kapeleia”.

During the Ottoman reign, Evliya Çelebi opened a new section in the book he was writing, Seyahatname, for meyhanes in Istanbul in 1600. He writes “Meyhanes are everywhere in Istanbul.” which is not a surprise. In the 17th century, it’s said that there were around 200 meyhane around Galata. After the 1850s, today’s known Turkish meyhane culture was established by restaurant permits and licenses.

Settings of Turkish Meyhanes

Most meyhane furnishings are the same. Blue wooden chairs with a white wooden table, a plaid tablecloth on the table with reversed glasses and plates. So, if you see such features, know that you are in a meyhane.

What Do You Eat in Turkish Meyhane?

Turkish meyhanes are famous for fresh fish dishes. Rakı and fish are the most known combination among locals. According to the people, the best seafood that goes best with rakı are squid, shrimp, sea bass, sea bream, and bluefish.

If you don’t like fish that much meyhanes always serve meatballs with rice or potatoes. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, what you should do is order mezes of your choice.

What is Turkish Rakı?

Rakı is a brandy made from grapes and raisins, enriched with pungent anise. Rakı’s alcohol percentage is around 40-50% which means proof of rakı is 80 to 100. Its smell and taste can be sharp and may make you nauseous. But after several sips, you will get used to it.

Brief History of Rakı

There is no written document about when and where the very first rakı was produced. However, it is broadly accepted the first Rakı was made in Anatolia. Because it was found that the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century had a drink similar to rakı. Also, Evliya Çelebi mentions rakı a lot in his Book of Travels while he was in Istanbul. Meaning rakı kept thriving in Anatolia for more than 1000 years and it still does.

It is thought that rakı’s name comes from the Razaki grape. Also, some sources claim that the rakı word is derived from “arak”, “araki”, or “ariki” which means “distilled” in Arabic. It somehow makes sense since Iran’s anise drink is called “Arak”.

Even though these aniseed alcoholic beverages sound similar, Turkish rakı, Iranian Arak, and Greek Ouzo do not taste the same. So, Rakı is a traditional Turkish alcoholic drink.

How to Drink Rakı Properly?

You shouldn’t take shots of Turkish rakı, it is meant to be sipped. There are two ways to drink rakı: Diluted or straight up.

If you are drinking rakı diluted at meyhane, you should see the little lines in the bottom of the rakı glass. Fill 1/3 of the glass with rakı and dilute it with cold water. Don’t add ice because it will crystallize the substances of rakı and ruin the taste. Instead, add ice to your water glass.

If you want to drink it straight up, just pour 1/3 glass of rakı into the glass and sip it. Then, drink cold water.

Types of Turkish Rakıs

There are seven different brands of Turkish raki:

  • Yeni Rakı
  • Efe Rakı
  • Beylerbeyi Rakısı
  • Saki Rakı
  • İzmir Rakısı
  • Tayfa Rakı
  • Burgaz Rakı

Rakı is sold in 350, 700, and 1000 ml bottles.

Our Turkish Rakı Recommendations

If you want a strong rakı that will hit you hard, go for Yeni Rakı.

If you’d like to enjoy your evening with a silky rakı that will hit you after two or three glasses, go for Beylerbeyi.

What is Turkish Meze?

Turkish mezes or rakı mezes are side dishes you eat while drinking rakı. Apart from meyhanes, mezes have a special spot in Turkish food culture. Because Turkish people love diversity when it comes to food, they don’t like eating one thing but cherish their palate with various flavors in one go.

What Does Meze Mean?

Meze originates from the Persian word “maza” which means “flavor”.  During the 9th and 10th centuries, many words from Persian were adapted to Turkish and meze is one of them. In Turkish, meze means “to taste.”

The History of Meze

It’s unknown when or who made mezes, but it’s thought that Minoans found olive oil and spread it to the Mediterranean. For this reason, it is believed that Minoan Civilization was the first to make olive oil. Antipasto in Italy, horderves in France, and tapas in Spanish are different interpretations of meze. 

Drinking alcohol is forbidden by religion in Islam, so Muslims during the Ottoman reign didn’t take meze culture seriously. It was the non-Muslims who embraced the meze culture and improved it. They opened meyhanes in Yenikapı, Karaköt, Galata, Kumkapı, Balat, Şişli, Kurtuluş, Adalar, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy to spread the culture and its diversity. Now, mezes are not in meyhanes but in Turk’s daily meals.

Best Mezes to Eat With Rakı

  • Haydari: Combination of yogurt, peppermint, dill, garlic, and olive oil.
  • Green Olive Salad: Round-cut green olives combined with onions, dill, olive oil, and pomegranate syrup.
  • Celery Appetizer: Grated celery with yogurt.
  • Artichoke Salad: Cube artichoke pieces with tomatoes, dill, lots of lemon juice, and olive oil.
  • Tzatziki: Also known as cacık, diluted yogurt with cucumber pieces, mint, dill, and parsley.
  • Onion Appetizer: Roasted onions with parsley and pomegranate syrup.
  • Shakshuka: Eggplant with peppers, tomatoes, and onions.
  • Sea Cowpea: Boiled sea cowpea with garlic and lots of lemon juice.
  • Tarator: Grated and cooked zucchini or carrot combined with yogurt, walnuts, and olive oil.
  • Atom: Yogurt combined with cayenne pepper. It’s spicy!
  • Fava: Purée of broad beans
  • Tirosalata: Salad made with feta cheese.
  • Hummus: Chickpea paste with lots of olive oil.
  • Calamari Pan: Fried calamari goes so well with rakı.
  • Lakerda: Thinly sliced fermented fish pieces soaked in olive oil.
  • Arugula Salad: If you are eating fish, arugula is a must to have on the table.
  • White Cheese: Eating cheese with rakı is a must!
  • Fruits: Some people like eating fruits after several glasses of rakı.

Best Meyhanes in Istanbul

If you are looking for the best meyhanes in Istanbul to spend your night, the city’s diverse neighborhoods offer a delightful array of options. Wander through the lively streets of Beyoğlu, where traditional meyhanes beckon with their authentic ambiance and a tempting variety of mezes. Alternatively, explore the vibrant scenes of Karaköy or Galata, where you’ll find establishments blending modernity with tradition. Along Nevizade Sokak, the atmosphere is lively, with numerous meyhanes offering an immersive experience. Whichever neighborhood you choose, Istanbul’s meyhanes promise a night filled with the warmth of Turkish hospitality, live music, and a rich tapestry of culinary delights.

Find out where these meyhanes are in Istanbul!