Called kahvalti, the Turkish word for breakfast literally means "before coffee" and, true to its name, the traditional breakfast begins with black tea, served boiling hot in a tulip-shaped glass and a few cubes of sugar. It's the opening act to a near tidal wave of food: heavy on cheese and bread, with a few plates of crunchy vegetables and sliced fruit for a dash of colour and a refreshing addition to a dense and savoury meal.
Though an undeniably indulgent affair, breakfast hardly ever feels so in the moment. It's often presented via a dizzying number of small plates and eaten slowly over tea and conversation. Consisting of several types of cheese, meat, bread, olives, and spreads, you'll sample dozens of small dishes.
You'll encounter some of the most common types of Turkish cheese at breakfast: beyaz peynir, a salty, crumbly cheese similar to feta; taze kaşar, a firm and slightly chewy yellow cheese; and eski kaşar, a strong, aged variety. Menemen, a savory and spiced egg dish, might make an appearance, still bubbling in the metal pan it was cooked in. To accompany the meal, there's often börek, a piping hot pastry made with flakey phyllo and filled with cheese, meat, or potatoes, and gözleme, a flatbread stuffed with various fillings and made crispy over a griddle. A basket of warm bread is also served with a traditional breakfast, along with a variety of spreads. Think beyond butter and jam: dip your breakfast rolls into fresh pine honey, an oily and savoury red pepper paste, or a sweet tahini and grape molasses spread. And, of course, the star of the show will be kaymak, a clotted cream often presented in a pool of fresh honey, whose decadence has propelled Istanbul's foodies to a never-ending quest for the city's freshest, fluffiest, creamiest variety.
Which brings us to this question: while in Istanbul, where should you eat the most important meal of the day? Whether you're after the whole kaymak-laden affair or a streamlined version of the meal with cocktails aplenty, Istanbul's Bosphorus-side location means you shouldn't have to sacrifice a beautiful view when starting out the day. Here are five different and delicious locations throughout the city:
Located north of the city centre along a much quieter strip of the Bosphorus, go to Café Kale if you're looking for a local, no-frills restaurant that serves enough food to warrant a nap immediately afterward. Already well known in Istanbul before Anthony Bourdain visited in a segment of No Reservations, Kale lives up to its reputation as a breakfast institution. Locals flock here on weekend mornings, but the wait is never too long. Get there early enough and snag the tiny sun-filled patio on the second floor of the restaurant's pink interior: it's perfect for a quiet breakfast for two and has a dazzling waterside view.
Located in Cihangir, try out Kahve6 if you're looking for a relaxed environment in a youthful and artsy neighbourhood close to Taksim Square. This café's primary focus is on breakfast, as indicated by the wordplay in its name (the word for "six" in Turkish is "alti," making the restaurant name a pun on kahvalti). Although the café offers traditional Turkish breakfasts, you can also find more western options: muesli with yogurt, scrambled egg sandwiches, and salads. All food is made with organic and seasonal ingredients, much of it directly sourced from outside Istanbul.
A bar and restaurant located in one of the trendiest and most upscale spots in Istanbul, Lucca is often the focal point of the Bebek neighbourhood—a prime spot to pick if you'd like to people-watch with a cocktail in hand. Regardless of the time of day or night, it seems you'll always spy a steady stream of cars dropping patrons off. The best time to go is the mornings, where it's possible to linger over a mimosa or cappuccino without elbowing your neighbour. Shaded outdoor seating and heat lamps provide for comfortable dining no matter the season. Stop for a meal if you need a tiny break from the local fare—the menu is decidedly more western, though not without Asian influences, and it offers a nice selection of wine and cocktails.
Aqua Restaurant at the Four Seasons Bosphorus
Not to be confused with its counterpart in Sultanahmet, the Four Seasons in its Bosphorus location is just north of the city centre on a wide, tree-lined avenue. Its Aqua restaurant hosts a buffet-style Sunday brunch beginning at 12:30; reservations are recommended. The offerings span traditional Turkish fare to western-style breakfast items to a small selection of sushi; be sure also to visit the dessert room, which boasts tiers of pastries, tarts, and cakes.
Laledan Restaurant at Çırağan Palace
Located just down the street from the Four Seasons, the Çırağan is a hotel that's been converted from a nineteenth century Ottoman Palace. It has kept that tradition of luxury with its restaurant Laledan, located in the midst of a beautiful garden. Offering a buffet-style Sunday brunch from noon onwards, the restaurant provides an impressive variety of food: you'll find all of the elements of a traditional Turkish breakfast here, but also dishes from around the world. The crown jewel, however, is the Chocolate Room: a separate dessert-only area featuring the work of a deft pastry chef, in addition to plates of Turkish delight and entire slabs of dark chocolate. As a bonus, the restaurant also offers a separate play area for children.