Blue tiles and boiled beans, Pandeli is back
The story starts with a dish of beans, just plain boiled beans, soft, tender, tasty, served with thinly sliced onions and a dressing of olive oil and vinegar. And the story continues with serving stars, celebrities, kings and queens in a blue tiled pretty restaurant. This is the fairy tale of a bygone era of Istanbul.
This is how Pandeli started his adventure, from selling beans to tradesmen from a street cart to transforming to a restaurateur creating the most iconic Istanbul restaurant. Pandeli was from a Greek family from the Central Anatolian province of Niğde. His father was a shepherd who later moved to Istanbul to seek opportunities and started to work as a porter in the docks close to the Spice Bazaar. As a young boy, Pandeli worked in several jobs, as a dishwasher, apprentice barber, grocer’s helper, etc. Struggling to make a living in the city, he ended up working in a restaurant owned by Hacı Haralambo and started to learn how to cook. Eventually he started selling his own piyaz, bean and onion salad, which later led him to open a köfte/meatball shop in Çukurhan, serving the classic duo of köfte and piyaz. Among his regular clients was Mustafa Kemal, then a young soldier serving in the Ottoman military and who sometimes had an open account to pay later when he received his salary at the beginning of the next month. Years later, after establishing modern Turkey, Atatürk returned to eat at Pandeli’s as the president of the country. Rumor has it that when he missed Pandeli’s food in Ankara, he had it sent by train. From then on, the road to stardom started. During the 1930’s his place became frequented by the literati and expats living in Istanbul; it was a meeting ground for writers and poets.
The fame of the place spread by word of mouth. Of course it was no more a humble serving of meatballs and beans, Pandeli has changed a couple of places, each time expanding the variety of dishes. Eventually the menu was more elaborate, including new novelties like the sea bass en papillote. He also started making döner kebab, classically not to be found in a restaurant, but in a kebab shop. The success story was not always smooth; the worst blow of the rocky road came with the horrible incidents of Sept. 6-7, 1955. His place was among the hundreds of shops looted; he almost gave up, practically shutting himself home being weary of life. Hearing this, Adnan Menderes, then the president of Turkey, offered him his last venue, the space at the upper floor of the Spice Market, right above its entrance. This was his iconic place, decorated with blue tiles. His son Hristo Çobanoğlu, a graduate of medical school, also chose to stay in Istanbul and help his father, giving up his dreams of going to U.S. or further studies.
Hristo eventually took over, in collaboration with Cemal Biberci, who had worked in the restaurant since he was a young apprentice. They made Pandeli a must-go place when visiting Istanbul. The United Kingdom’s Queen Mother, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev inter alias stopped by to enjoy the nostalgic Orient Express, like environs of this restaurant. It has to be noted that the famous train used to depart few streets away from the Sirkeci Station once upon a time. It was a point where West met with East, locals and foreign visitors, the menu reflecting this duality, an eclectic mix of western influenced dishes with that of old favorites.
Istanbul was lucky to have such a place. I remember in my childhood, coming from Ankara by wagon-lit train, arriving in Haydarpaşa, taking the ferry and heading directly to Sirkeci, climbing the steep stairs up, and ordering my favorite börek with eggplants topped with slivers of döner slices. While waiting for the dishes I would look with awe at the black & white pictures of stars like Audrey Hepburn hung on the walls, and dream of coming across one, and look around anxiously to see if there might be a star in disguise. It was fun. It was Istanbul. It was the great city!
Pandeli was more of an experience of mood than a solely gourmet escapade. They never changed; the menu was like visiting your younger days, quite nostalgic. In its last days it was a bit run down, as far as taste was concerned, it was dependable, if not great. Pandeli was of olden and golden times, but then it never ceased to be in fashion. It remained a place to go, at least on special occasions, especially for family reunion; it was our first lunch after getting married at the civil registry, also the venue of our first real quarrel over the name of our baby yet to be born. It meant memories for Istanbulites, but every dream had an end. A few years ago Pandeli was closed. It felt like Istanbul was gone.
Now the good news is that Pandeli is back! Now it is even stronger. Its old chef, Abdullah Sevim, is back from his village, teaming up with the talented chef of former kantin, Bayram Karaçam. The grand-daughter, Sofia Çobanoğlu, was there for the opening. Coming from Athens, she greeted guests with a Greek-accented Turkish, together with its new owners, Yücel Özalp and Gülin Özalp, who partnered with Menderes Utku and Muzaffer Yıldırım. The moment came when tears welled in my eyes; it was when Sofia handed a photograph of Pandeli to the Özalp couple. I will have the Christmas lunch there with my 85-year-old mother and my daughter, whose name I had my first fight over. It will be a family reunion, alas no men in the scene; my father passed away five years ago, Ulya’s father is away in hospital, so it will be only three generations of ladies. Thank you Pandeli for being back, it feels like Istanbul is back again. Strong and surviving in its original venue in the Spice Bazaar!
Fork & Cork of the Week: Cheese & Cheers! This is the title of Four Seasons Sultanahmet’s classic wine and cheese dinners. There are four flights of wine, and all you can eat is from the open buffet with three types of pizzas and risotto made to order and served in a hollowed heel of Parmesan cheese. The variety of local and international cheeses are great, and the hosting wine company changes every week, so there is an excuse to go back week after week. It is a secret steal of the town, for just 105 TL per person, with live piano playing and premium quality wine. Who could ask for more? Check the hotel for details and the next wine company visiting.