If you are unsure about how to proceed with your first night out in Istanbul, head over to Asmalı Mescit district: a neighborhood that was once home to artisan shops -like the butcher and the plumber- now a haven for seeing old friends, college buddies, colleagues, ex’s and just about any other person you can think of.
Asmalı Mescit is actually the name of a single street that runs into Istiklal Street, near the Tünel. Over the years, however, Asmalı Mescit’s identity as a simple street expanded over other near streets and has thus become a “district” of bars, taverns and lounges. The actual street names in what is called Asmalı Mescit are, other than Asmalı Mescit itself, Sofyalı Street, Minare and Jurnal Streets. This is the district that falls behind the Marmara Pera Hotel. Walking past the Marmara Pera Hotel behind Odakule, In tepebaşı, and passing in front of the Peak Hotel and Ece Meyhane (Tavern), you will find yourself already in Asmalı Mescit. On the corner of this little path in front of the Peak Hotel is La Brise Bistro -a tiny French restaurant that is the one and only typical French Bistro in the city. When you are sick of trying out Ottoman dishes, make sure you give this place a try.
Turning left at La Brise, a somewhat steep street will take you amidst the taverns. Taverns like Yakup, Melek, Cavit and Refik are lined up side by side and across from each other on this street. When you have more than 4 or 5 nights in the city, you might try out one of these. Be warned in advance that despite how crowded these places are, we, the Turkish people, don’t really go to these places for their food. The food is in fact not that good at all -except for at Cavit and Gurme Boncuk. The Turkish people crowd these taverns for the joy of being at a tavern -a traditional trait- and for the joy of drinking at somewhat cheaper prices. The only legitimate alcoholic beverage here is the rakı (Turkish ouzo), anything other than that including the wine is usually not of good quality.
Passing these little taverns as well, you will be arriving to the corner of Sofyalı Sokak. You can go either way here, because this is where the Asmalı Mescit nightlife starts.
The deal on Asmalı Mescit is to linger out, in front of the bars, with a mojito or beer in hand and to people watch. Walking down on Sofyalı Sokak and then making a left brings you to the once-most-popular spot -although it is hard to say that it is unpopular now. This is where the “old” Otto, Groove and Babylon are lined up across from each other. The “old” Otto Cafe & Bar deserves this name because its owners -who are locals of Beyoğlu- opened a second Otto branch nearby about a year and a half ago. The second, newer Otto is named Otto Sofyalı and is found on Sofyalı Street. Otto Sofyalı attracts a lot of posh women and yuppy men, although the local crowd of Beyoğlu fill it up as well, along with many of the “real” Asmalı Mesit frequenters.
The distinction made above between the “real” Asmalı people and the rest is quite common in Istanbul. Before Asmalı Mesict became trendy as it is today, it was an elitist bohemian quarter frequented by artists, designers and the like. These people often lived and/or worked nearby in Galata or Beyoğlu as well. Overtime, as Asmalı Mescit developed into a bar scene, more and more people were attracted -which initially annoyed the essential crowd. This essential crowd now calls themselves “mahalleli” (from the neighborhood) and the district their “mahalle.” They usually hang out around Cafe Şimdi during the day -which is on the other entrance of Asmalı Mescit -that is if you keep walking straight towards Istiklal Street after you pass through Yakup, Cavit and the other taverns. In the evenings you are most likely to run into the mahalleli at either of the Ottos because they are friends with the Otto owners.