You can find the Galata House Restaurant on a dimly lit side street in Istanbul, hidden away in the shadow of the tall, unwavering silhouette of the famed Galata Tower.
But while the queue for the tower stretches many times around its base, there’s no queue for the Galata House Restaurant. Perhaps that’s because a restaurant in an old British jail, serving up cuisine that would be more at home in the former Soviet Union, isn’t exactly high on most tourists’ eating lists.
Ring the doorbell and you’ll be met by one of the owners, Nadire or Mete Göktuğ. For the rest of the evening, you’ll be proudly regaled with stories of the old British jail and the history of Istanbul’s Galata neighborhood, as your hosts provide both dinner and entertainment. You’ll become so engrossed talking about the history of Istanbul as you drink Georgian wine that you’ll forget you even placed that order for Russian-style pelmeni dumplings.
The Göktuğs are Turkish, but somehow they’ve accumulated a unique menu with an Eastern European flair. Mete’s family has strong ties to the Black Sea and the far east of Turkey, where Georgian-inspired khinkali can be as commonplace as a Turkish breakfast. Over time, they’ve added Ukrainian borscht, Russian beef stroganoff, and Turkish classics such as dolma (stuffed vine leaves) to the menu.
And what does the Eastern European food have to do with the British history of the jail? Not a lot really. The Göktuğs, though, are avid historians as well as restaurateurs, and they couldn’t resist the temptation of such a historic building when it came on the market.
As you dine on soups from the Russian steppes and sip on wine from the Caucasus, the Göktuğs will delve into local history. How many centuries back you go will simply depend on how much time you have and how many other customers ring the doorbell.
As far as the historic building goes, it was commandeered by the British Consulate in the early 1900s. They needed a prison for unruly British sailors causing trouble in Galata. The prison passed into French hands, then eventually the Göktuğs purchased it in 1990, opening the Galata House Restaurant in 1999. Despite all the changes, the building has always been unofficially known as the Old British Jail, even today.
In many ways, the Galata House Restaurant is more representative of local history than a traditional Turkish restaurant might be. Despite its seeming peculiarities, this is a restaurant that fits well into the narrow, winding maze of steep streets that make up Galata.
Originally founded by the Genoese, before the Turkish had conquered what was then known as Constantinople, Galata evokes the multicultural nature of a city built at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. The Galata House Restaurant evokes this same feeling, too, and the menu has as many culinary layers as the streets of Galata have layers of history.