When visiting Istanbul you definitely should check out the Asian side of the city as well. Kadıköy is my favourite district. It is a large, populous, and cosmopolitan part of Istanbul, on the northern shore of the Sea of Marmara, facing the historic city centre on the European side of the Bosporus. It is the cultural heart of the Asian (Anatolian, Turks say) part of the city, with lots of youth culture, an opera building, live music, clubs and restaurants.
I particularly like the eatery that is situated in the Moda (Turkish for ‘modern’) hood, in an Ottoman, partly wooden, building. It is a former Greek mansion and was used for a long time as a private clinic, mainly a maternity ward, assisting women during childbirth and caring for them and their newborn infants until they are released to go home. According to the 1882 census non-Muslim minorities were the majority in Kadıköy in those days. Of the population of 7,000 26 percent were Greek, 26 percent Armenian, 4 percent Jewish and 42 percent Muslim.
The name of the restaurant is Viktor Levi Wine House 1914. It is one of the oldest surviving wine houses – saraphanesi – in town, although not in its original location. Viktor Levi is a special place to enjoy lunch or dinner with a selection of wines (local and imported). They have a lovely garden too for 200 people. The big garden is the most popular place of the restaurant as many of the guests want to smoke.
The place is named after Jewish journalist, publisher and wine entrepreneur Viktor Levi who published the papers La Patria (Country, 1908–1909) and La Boz (The Voice, 1908–1910) in Judeo Spanish, as most of the Jews in Istanbul arrived from Spain in 1492. Sultan Bayezid II had sent ships to save the Sephardic Jews of Spain from the Catholic Inquisition and granted them permission to settle in the Ottoman Empire.
Viktor Levi started as a salesman of sardines and grapes. Buying on Bozcaada island and selling on the markets in Istanbul. As soon as he turned his attention to the wine business, he realized that the profit margin on wines was much higher than on sardines and grapes.
Levi decided to open his own wine house in 1914, first in Galata and later in the Hamalbaşı street next to the British embassy on the European side of town.
Viktor Levi died in 1967. His cousin Yasef Levi took over the wine business and wine house until he left for America in 1985. Up to 1999 the bar was exploited as an ordinary pub. New Turkish owners renovated it and it was reopened in 2000 in its former nostalgic atmosphere of nearly a century ago.
That wine bar, and the other historic wine house Pano, founded by Panayot Papadopoulos in 1898, were damaged by the suicide truck bomb attack in November 2003 by al-Qaeda against the British involvement of the American military invasion of Iraq. Consul-General Roger short was among the 17 killed at the consulate. It was less than a week after suicide bomb attacks against two synangoges – Bet Israel and Neve Shalom – in which 27 people died, six of them Jews.
Viktor Levi wine house closed its doors in the summer of 2011. The older Pano wine House on the corner did the same that year and relocated to one of the streets next to Taksim Square. Viktor Levi set up shop in Moda. They opened in 2004 in Moda, in the Damacı Sokak (street).
The closing down of two of the oldest wine houses in the Beyoglu district were signs that this historic entertainment hood with is active nightlife started to lose its attraction due to gentrification, increased security risks because of terrorist attacks, new anti alcohol regulations, high increases of entertainment and consumption taxes. As historic businesses left the district and an increasing number of shops close their doors, nightlife and entertainment have moved from Beyoglu and Taksim to Kadıköy on the Asian side. That is now the place where the young, hip and cool crowd chill.
Viktor Levi represents history in this trendy hood. It has a special atmosphere and is frequented mostly by Turks who are ardent admirers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a former Ottoman army officer, reformist statesman, and the first President of Turkey.
The music is Greek, Spanish, French, Italian, jazz and western pop. The photos and decorations are an eclectic mix of Christian, communist and Kemalist republican icons. Photos of Atatürk, of Uğur Mumcu, an investigative reporter at the Kemalist newspaper Cumhuriyet who was assassinated in 1993. A photo of celebrated communist poet Nâzım Hikmet who fled from authoritarian Kemalism in Turkey to the Soviet Union as a 19-year old. A photo and a poem of communist writer, humorist and political activist Aziz Nesin, who also was a critic on Islam, and began in early 1990s a translation of Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, The Satanic Verses. An angry Muslim mob nearly lynched him because of it. On one of the walls is – no surprise – a poem by Persian Sufi mystic, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam on the pleasures of drinking wine with friends. And a large painting inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, one of the world’s most famous religious paintings in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. What they all had in common? They loved wine and other alcoholic drinks.
It is always a pleasure to enjoy wine and food with friends at Viktor Levi. The only thing I really miss is a photo of Viktor Levi.