Konya Lezzet Lokantası (also known as “Konyalı”)
Born in 1882 in Konya, Hacı Ahmed Doyuran first moved to Beyşehir and then traveled throughout Western Anatolia where he became acquainted with various regional dishes. When he arrived at his final destination of İstanbul, the money and knowledge he had accumulated sufficed to open a tiny restaurant across the street from the main train station, containing all of four tables and sixteen chairs. The year was 1897, and Ahmed Bey thus managed to feed not only his own family but also neighboring businessmen and the local poor. Situated at a key location to which people came by boat from Asia and by train from Europe, the restaurant’s renown grew rapidly, and so did its customer base. While it initially catered to the lower income brackets, in time people from all walks of life came to patronize it.
Commercial records from 1900 on indicate that an “Ahmed Efendi” was established at that particular corner of Sirkeci. In fact, the establishment of Konyalı as it is now known was a harbinger of the emergence of Turkish cuisine as an alternative to the westen-style restaurants that had proliferated, particularly in business districts. Indeed, Konyalı served a whole array of Anatolian flavors and gradually joined the ranks of the most prestigious establishments of its day including Circle d’Orient, Tokatlıyan, Abdullah Efendi, and Pera Palas. At a time when the word lokanta, derived from the Italian word for inn, had been adopted to denote a restaurant in Turkish, Konyalı was one of the few eateries that had a Turkish name. It was also one of the few establishments in İstanbul that featured döner kebab (meat grilled on a vertical spit). Fairness, cleanliness, delicious taste, and high quality became its guiding principles and they were applied to each and every plate served.
Ahmed Efendi’s workday began at the crack of dawn and ended late at night; when his work was done, he would sit on a chair in front of his restaurant and smoke the water-pipe, distributing the unsold food to the poor. Their prayers brought his business blessings for years, and the distinctive way he used to call out to them became so famous that it found its way in 1942 into the newspaper Akşam, where it was mentioned in an article that described the colorful personalities of İstanbul and their unusual forms of address.
While Konya Lezzet Lokantası, as the restaurant was originally named, developed and grew until the 1920s, it remained a modest establishment. In 1921, however, Ahmed Efendi offered his son-in-law, a teacher of mathematics, partnership in the business, and then things began to change. At the birth of the Republic of Turkey, after decades of war and misery, the number of restaurants in İstanbul owned by Muslims was just thirty-five. That Ahmed Efendi’s establishment gained popularity and notoriety was partly due to the promotion campaigns he launched. During the 1930s, for example, the restaurant offered a 10 per cent discount to members of the Press Association. Thus, when the Maçka-Bayezid tram collided with a car in 1937, newspapers did not feel the need to describe the location of the accident in any detail beyond writing that it happened “in front of Konya Lezzet Lokantası.” And when the restaurant suffered a chimney fire that same year, firefighters had no difficulty locating the address.
The name of Konya Lezzet Lokantası came up in Parliament debates on a number of occasions. The first was in 1935, when the establishment was assessed taxes far in excess of its earnings. Mustafa Doğan went to Ankara where he enlisted the help of Cemal Tekin, a representative of Konya. After solving his townsman’s problem, Tekin stepped up to the podium to denounce the errors made by the tax authorities, giving Konya Lezzet Lokantası as an example. In 1985, when the government wished to avoid responding to a question posed by the opposition, its spokesman instead listed all the dishes that had been served to the Saudi Prince Abdullah when he was hosted at Konyalı.
Mustafa Doğan was a well-respected member of the business community. He was consulted when the restaurant industry’s problems were being debated during the early 1940s, and had indicated that it was necessary, in order to increase quality, to found a professional association. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Esnaf (Tradesmen’s) Hospital, as well as a regular of intellectual circles attended by such luminaries as Nihat Sami Banarlı and İbrahim Kafesoğlu, where politics were often discussed.
When Hacı Ahmed Doyuran died in 1944, Mustafa Doğanbey —who had been managing the restaurant— and Ahmed Efendi’s grandsons inherited his secret recipes, his business ethics, and a Turkish brand. Next to the famous Konyalı bread, döner kebab, iç pilav (spiced stuffing rice), kuzu tandır (lamb cooked in a tandoor oven), güveçte sebzeli et yemeği (meat and vegetable casserole), and hünkâr beğendi (puree of roasted eggplants, often topped with lamb stew), the menu included various kinds of baklava —which, in the 1940s, was also sold by weight — as well as “kır yemekleri” (picnic meals), an early kind of takeout service packed in special boxes. Despite all these innovations, however, Konyalı never followed ephemeral fashions such as “fast food.” On the contrary, for many commentators, Konyalı was the flagbearer of Turkish cuisine against the erosion of national values.
Konyalı’s identification with Turkish food placed it at the top of tourist guides. The fact that it did not serve alcohol was disappointing to some customers, but still Konyalı remained extremely popular during the 1950s, thanks to its service and delicious food. The Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo wrote that this was not a venue for French cuisine, nor for dishes specific to the Muslim World, but for the classics of Turkish cuisine, simple and satisfying.
That the historical restaurant became so emblematic did not fail to attract the attention of public officials. When a decision was made to locate a restaurant on the grounds of the Topkapı Palace Museum, it was to Nurettin Doğanbey, then the director of the establishment, that the authorities turned. With its sherbets and hünkâr beğendi (literally, “the monarch liked it”), Konyalı has provided service worthy of sultans since 1969. It was hardly surprising that those in positions of authority had selected Konyalı for the job, since most had personally had the experience of dining there. The restaurant’s guest book includes notes by presidents like İsmet İnönü, Cevdet Sunay, and Turgut Özal, prime ministers like Necmettin Erbakan and Nihat Erim, and many others. When Konyalı moved into the Topkapı Palace, moreover, it also became a fixture of diplomatic protocol. From Queen Elizabeth II to President Pervez Musharraf, many world leaders as well as well-known athletes, businessmen, and artists admired İstanbul from the sultans’ windows while dining there. The writer and poet Yusuf Ziya Ortaç used to say to youngsters, bitterly: “You are the sandwich generation”; having said that, he would then make his way to one of the traditional restaurants in the Eminönü area —Pandeli, Abdullah Efendi, or Konyalı.
More important than visits by the rich and famous was the habit that Konyalı had created among common people. One out-of-town visitor’s to-do list for İstanbul read as follows: “Arrive in İstanbul by boat. Check in at the Meseret Hotel. Eat at Konya Lezzet Lokantası. Buy clothes from the finest tailors in Tarlabaşı.” Those who boasted about their cooking would be told to “Go get a job at Konyalı as a cook.” When there was no food at home, those who were not content with bread and cheese would set out towards Sirkeci. Konyalı used the best ingredients and so sometimes people would speak not only of the taste of its food but also of its price. In his memoirs, Lütfi Feliz wrote: “When we paid 50 kuruş for soup and 2.5 lira for a meat dish, it became clear to us that our İstanbul stay would not last long.” It was certainly true that Konyalı could be hard on some budgets, and the management was well aware of that. In order not to lose its ties to the common people, the restaurant sometimes organized special campaigns. In 1974, for example, “40 year-old prices” were advertised, and in 1977, “80 year-old prices,” causing long queues to form in front of the restaurant. During the years when inflation was out of control, newspapers would often gauge rising prices and falling purchasing power by the prices at Konyalı.
After Mustafa Doğanbey, it was the turn of Nurettin Doğanbey, his son, who took over the family tradition during the 1970s. In 1978, the family led by Nurettin Bey collectively decided to tear down the old building and build a seven-storey structure in its place; its bottom two floors were still dedicated to the family heirloom, their precious restaurant. A graduate of the Galatasaray School, Nurettin Bey modernized the workplace and continued to enforce the discipline originally established by Hacı Ahmed Doyuran. That may well be why, when municipal and health inspections were performed at all the well-known restaurants in 1990, Konyalı received a perfect score. Like his father, Nurettin Doğanbey was a highly respected professional whose opinions were greatly valued. He believed that “The chef must be cooked along with the food.” Himself the third generation of the family to manage the business, he passed the baton to his son Mehmet Eren Doğanbey. Still run by the same family, Konyalı is now not only a restaurant but a food industrial concern that also counts pastries among its products and employs hundreds of people.
For more than a century, Konyalı Lezzet Lokantası has been the meeting place of those who turn food into art with those who seek to make life in İstanbul a source of pleasure. As stated in an advertisement printed during the 1950s, they are “the honor of Turkish cuisine.”
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