Cafe Istanbul is a rare gem hidden between Utage’s mediocre sushi and the horrifying dive bar sludge of Jerzee’s on Clayton Street. It feels like a bar, complete with blistering drink menu, and yet somehow it has an attentive waitstaff and churns out perfectly seasoned lamb kebab? I’m sold. The plates were simple, but each item was uniquely flavorful and satisfying. The restaurant itself is like Taziki’s hot older sibling: cheaper, in the heart of downtown, with the addition of a fully stocked bar.
When I arrived at 8 pm on a Sunday night, it was deserted. I kept looking for reasons why, and I couldn’t find any. The appetizer selection was modest, but stuck to the timeless classics: tzatziki dip, stuffed grape leaves, etc. I ordered lamb, beef, and chicken kebab, which came with rice and a salad. Each meat was tender and bursting with mediterranean goodness. Rice is usually just rice, but the addition of chick peas and the perfect moisture to stickiness ratio made this rice an equal with the meat. I found I was enjoying a forkful of the rice all by itself.
The waiter was scarce, as the restaurant was devoid of all life at this point. But he somehow magically appeared just in time to refill my drink, to whisk away plates, to suggest dessert. Although the room was empty, it still felt warm due to the large amount of lamps. I could almost imagine packed tables, a crowded bar, and maybe even people dancing in the big open space between.
A quick google search for “mediterranean food” helped explain why it might have been so empty. I had to type in “Cafe Istanbul” to find any information on it. It seems to have been beat in the search engine optimization category by Keba, Mediterranean Grill, Taziki’s, and the Sultan. When I finally did find some reviews on “Cafe Istanbul 4”, its official name, they were stellar. For restaurants to thrive in a college town, its usually imperative that they have a strong online or social media presence to draw in the younger crowd. I don’t think Cafe Istanbul was empty for anything other than lack of knowledge that it existed.
Looking at their facebook site, it appears they have themed dance nights at points throughout the year, and they seem to do very well. I will definitely be marking my calendar and planning to attend one in the near future. If the food is just as good and I can dance it all off, I can’t imagine a more ideal place.