Manchester’s Cafe Istanbul - the first Turkish restaurant in the north of England
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 January 2016 | UPDATED: 11:08 19 January 2016
It was a brave thing to open a Turkish restaurant in 1980, Gatley-based Sacit Onur, owner of Manchester’s Cafe Istanbul tells Ray King as he reflects on 35 years of success
Present-day Manchester city centre demonstrates the kind of self-confident swagger that befits the nascent ‘Northern Powerhouse’.
But in 1980 it was a different story. It was a city in decline as traditional industries collapsed and its town hall rulers were about to begin a bitter civil war. Not an ideal time, you may conclude, to open a new restaurant. A restaurant of any sort that is, let alone an enterprise the like of which few intrepid diners had ever encountered before among the Wimpy bars and Berni Inns.
Sacit Onur chuckles at the memory. ‘When I opened Café Istanbul it was the first Turkish restaurant in the north of England, never mind Manchester. At that time, 35 years ago, nobody here knew where Turkey was...in the sense that no-one went there on holiday; everybody went to Spain. And I couldn’t get ingredients. Who knew in 1980 what an aubergine was? Or a courgette? I’m not joking! I used to get the produce from London where there were a few Middle Eastern supermarkets.’
Born in Istanbul, Sacit has lived in Gatley for more than two decades. He came to England in his teens and lived with his accountant brother in London before starting a degree course in mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester. ‘My father wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. All the family is like that on his side. I never told him I had two restaurants and a club until about 15 years later. He was unwell so we brought him to London for treatment and I told him then. He couldn’t believe it, but he loved it, obviously.’
So where did engineering end and becoming a restaurateur begin? Sacit explains:‘I was only doing the engineering course for my dad. I didn’t like it. But to make some money when I was a student I was working part-time for a catering company that had a chain of restaurants, bars and clubs and in no time I was an area manager. I was 21 and had 80 people working for me.’
Then Sacit found a ‘tiny shop’ at the Deansgate end of Manchester’s Peter Street, down from the Free Trade Hall. It was hardly palatial but he named it Topkapi after the Sultans’ magnificent former residence in Istanbul and operated a takeaway. Soon Sacit sold the business to his partner and at the tender age of 25, opened Café Istanbul on Bridge Street where it has thrived for a remarkable 35 years.
So what did Sacit himself make of Manchester in 1980? ‘Yes it was wet and sometimes miserable,’ he says, ‘but the night life was fantastic! Remember I was only 19- 20 years old when I came here and only 25 when I opened the restaurant. My auntie sent me £8,000 from Turkey - in those days that was a lot of money - and she never wanted it back. She had no children so we were like her own kids. Yes, opening a Turkish restaurant in Manchester back then was a risk, a step into the unknown...in the rain!’
The restaurant has expanded over the years into neighbouring properties. Today, beneath the chic modern dining room and adjoining bar, the recently launched live music venue designed by the renowned Bernard Carroll (credits include Panacea, San Carlo and Cicchetti) is the latest incarnation of La Gitane, Sacit’s club for 10 years once located in a nearby basement. Said Sacit: ‘The space had been used as a private dining room but I thought it would do better as a venue for jazzy live music in the style of the old La Gitane. There is nowhere really for older crowds to go for live music on this side of town.’
Sacit shares his home in Gatley with Jana, his partner of seven years, who manages the restaurant. Outside of work they enjoy visiting the Lake District and enjoy skiing. Sacit takes to the piste in France three or four times each year.
But 35 years on, his enthusiasm for culinary excellence in a much-changed Bridge Street is undimmed and he maintains a regular sharp-suited presence in the restaurant offering a personal greeting to loyal clientele and newcomers alike.