What: One of the most recognizable foods to the international traveler, who is as likely to encounter some version of it (Middle Eastern shawarma, Greek gyro) in Istanbul as in Berlin or Sydney, döner is marinated meat—lamb, beef, sometimes chicken—cooked on a rotating vertical spit that’s usually capped with lamb fat (and often tomato, pepper, and onion), so the meat stays moist and flavorful with the heated drippings. For serving as a kebap (kebab), it’s sliced off with a long knife in thin, crisp pieces that are then wrapped in pita-like pide or French bread as a sandwich, or rolled in thin lavaş (lavash; this wrap is also called dürüm). Döner may also be presented on a platter pilav üstü (over rice). It is a Turkish invention, originating in nearby Bursa and credited to none other than İskender Efendi, of İskender kebab fame, who claims to have been the first to right the horizontal lamb-roasting spit to the vertical position. In Istanbul, you’ll find döner on nearly every corner, its intoxicating scent luring you in for a quick, cheap—and immensely satisfying—snack.
Good to know: Döner is just one type of the countless kebaps, or kebabs, found in Istanbul, many of which are regional to specific parts of Turkey—İskender, Adana, Urfa, cağ—and many which highlight regional or seasonal ingredients (fistic kebab, with lamb and chopped pistachios; keme kabab, with truffles). They are both grilled and oven-cooked (see this helpful little guide from Istanbul Trails). There is a dizzying array of meat dishes in this city, and country beyond, so in the interest of narrowing the field, in this guide we focus on the kebabs you’ll find most widely in Istanbul, like döner, and/or hail from near enough to be truly regional (i.e., İskender kebab). We encourage you to try as many other varieties as you can!
Where: Pictured is the döner from Kesap Osman (212-519-3216; Hocapaşa Sokak No. 22, map) in Eminönü, which we stumbled upon via Istanbul Eats (which recommends this same spot for its take on İskender kebab). Like many döner shops in Istanbul, Osman’s spit is gas-powered as opposed to the more traditional charcoal (wood and electric are also common). It’s popular for its wide selection of soups early in the day and its kebabs in the afternoon and evening.
When: Daily, 6am-9pm
Order: We opted for a döner sandwich, or yarım ekmek döner (6 TL), for which the meat is joined in a fresh roll by green peppers, tomato, and a few French fries. Sliced into thin leaves, the beef döner was redolent with lamb fat and nicely textured with tender and crispy bits. Next time we’d order it with lavaş on the side, as we found the bread masked the döner taste a bit. And if there are any of the daily soups left, try one of those too.
Alternatively: Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of döner in this city? We found that most ustas, or grill masters, are happy to give you a taste of their product if you’re unsure about settling on a spot. That’s how we discovered the exceptionally tasty lamb-topped beef döner at Karadeniz Pide ve Döner Salonu (212-261-7693; Mumcu Bakkal Sok. No. 6, approx. map) in Beşiktaş, where there’s always a line at lunch (we’d just stuffed ourselves silly at Kaymakçı Pando across the street so unfortunately couldn’t indulge in a full order). If you can get past all the other fresh daily offerings, you might try the döner at the excellent Çiya Sofrasi (216-330-3190; Güneşlibahçe Sokak No. 43, map), in Kadiköy (its sister kebab restaurant across the street offers a ton more regional kebabs too). At the other end of the spectrum: Scarfing down late-night döner (including dürüm) from one of the many Taksim Square vendors is practically a rite of passage for any Istanbul visitor, and there’s no shame in that. Go forth and explore.