I was aware, after a few paces, that my wife was no longer at my side. She had stopped dead, like a show jumper pulled up at a particularly intimidating fence. I turned and instantly recognised her expression: I’m not going down there. I glanced back up the road we had been walking along and saw it through her eyes. Dark, damp, derelict, with just the occasional shadowy figure in a doorway, half-lit by the glow of his cigarette. We were in Karakoy, Istanbul, just north of the Galata Bridge, and I was beginning to think I had been sold a pup.
The evening had started with the exact opposite sensation – how did this all get so smart? The last time I was in the city, the streets of the Beygolu district around the Pera Palace were certainly showing strong signs of gentrification, but now it was buffed to a Mayfair-quality high sheen. It was here, after all, that was chosen for the siting of the latest, and biggest, Soho House (00 90 212 377 7100, http://www.sohohouseistanbul.com), bang next door to the Pera. Now, you might think another outpost (London, New York, L.A., Berlin, Miami..) of this members-only media menagerie is hardly worth a raised eyebrow, but this one is pretty spectacular. It is housed in the former US consulate, and Uncle Sam lived in style in those days – soaring ceilings, sweeping staircases, wrought iron balustrades, elaborate ceilings, opulent drapes, and triple-height doors. Actually, I doubt the Americans had tricked out this former merchant’s palace quite as smartly as Nick Jones’s SH team. There is a grand first floor bar that is buzzier than a beekeeper’s convention, a stunning roof terrace, and plenty of divans for elegant lounging. The only problem is that, even if you are a member, you can’t stay there.
Accommodation, you see, is not in the historic clubhouse (on the left, above), but in The Glasshouse annexe (just visible on the right, above), a modern see-through cube next door, itself pretty striking, but no palazzo. Booking a room (£200 and up) does get you access to all the members’ facilities in the clubhouse and, come summer, there will be two rooftop pools in the Glasshouse to paddle about in. The 87 rooms themselves are decorated in the International Groovy Style – carved wooden headboards, rolltop bath at the foot of bed, interesting artworks, incredibly generous bottles of bathroom amenities and all the required hi-tech conveniences at the touch of .. well, quite a lot of buttons. Even if you don’t stay, the retro fifties-style Alice Bar downstairs is open to the hoi polloi, so you too can sit around musing about when you were at Milan Fashion Week. Nabbing an Asian-inspired, cucumber-infused G&T, served like a martini (£6.50), and people watching/earwigging is a good way to pass an hour. If it has a downside you have to accept that, stepping through the doors of either building, you are leaving Istanbul and entering SohoHouseWorld, where the staple diet is mac’n’cheese, the standard posture is hunched over a Mac Book Air and all conversations are obliged by house rules to begin “When I was at Sundance/South By South West/London Fashion Week..” Don’t get me wrong, I think they have done a great job and the palazzo is breathtaling, but with Soho Houses mooted to pop up all over the world, there is a slight danger that they could become a hipper version of a global brand like The Four Seasons – slick, well-run, comfortable, but ever-so-slightly familiar and predictable. Although there are cultural differences on display – as one staff member told me: ‘Here we have valet parking; in Shoreditch House we had a bike rack.’
When Soho House arrived in Shoreditch it put a stamp of approval on this once glum area, showing east London had arrived in the big league. Similarly, the Istanbul House marks a certain maturity in the Beygolu district, a sort of sophisticated middle age. But, as one neighbourhood settles into upmarket comfort, the lights go on in another, still edgy part of town. Which is how I came to be walking down a dark street in Karakoy with a reluctant wife in tow, looking for a bar that I had been recommended.
If you cross the Galata Bridge, heading away from the attractions of the Old Town – Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace – and turn left, you are in streets full of chain saws and angle grinders, bolt cutters and spanners – like a chaotic al fresco B&Q. Turn right, it’s all garish delis and sugar-rush sweet shops, but it is in the latter, eastern part, that you will find the latest batch of hip bars and restaurants. The first one you will see is probably Karaköy Lokantası (00 90 212 292 4455, http://www.karakoylokantasi.com) at 37A Kemankeş Caddesi. This is a bankers’ power-lunch favourite by day, a more funky tavern at night, serving well-executed traditional Ottoman food (mezzes, stuffed cabbage, veal stew) and reservations are essential – and I don’t mean when you get to the city, but probably several weeks in advance for Friday/Saturday. There is also a small and rather elegant nine-room guesthouse, Karakoy Rooms (00 90 212 252 5422, http://www.karakoyrooms.com, doubles from £110), just above it.
But reverse down the street a little and take a look at the really rather unassuming (in fact, scruffy) office block at number 31. Enter the foyer and the receptionist will point to the lift and say “Five” without even asking what you want. Because on the fifth floor is another popular dining room, Ferahfeza (00 90 212 243 5154, http://www.ferahfeza-ist.com), this one less traditional in style, with a Turkish and Italian menu mix (the lamb loin shish and beef shin pappardelle are both excellent). It comes with a terrace (covered in winter) that offers an appealing view over the water towards Topkapi but it also has that rarity in Istanbul – intimate lighting. Most restaurants are lit so brightly you could perform open-heart surgery or repair circuit boards in them – Ferahfeza is wonderfully easy on the eye, if not the wallet (allow £40-50pp). There’s an equally soft-lit bar area if you just fancy a drink.
It was from here we ventured further down the street, into what looked like a derelict part of town, but that gave way (after the scaffolding and gloom) to a cluster of bars, centered on the packed, art deco-inspired Café Bej (00 90 212 251 71 95) at 11 Kemankeş Caddesi, which has pavement tables, giving it an entirely apposite Parisian feel, being as it is on the corner of an alley known as French Pass (Fransiz Pasaji). In case you were wondering, this is where Istanbul’s beautiful-young-things-with-money have been hiding.
There’s more than just eating and drinking hereabouts – there’s sophisticated and witty gift shops such as Atolye 11 (47 Mumhane Caddesi) and Bej shares a space with ‘House of Paper’ aka Kagithane, which only sells items made of.. well, you can guess. There’s also coffee shops, cafes and art galleries aplenty and even an exquisitely restored, upmarket hammam dating from the 16th century, Kilic Ali Pasa (00 90 212 393 8010, http://www.kilicalipasahamami.com, from £38pp).
It all reminded me in feeling, if not physicality, of New York’s Meat Packing District twenty or so years ago, when it was on the cusp of gentrifying, just before.. wait, oh, yes, Soho House moved in. However, the agent of change for this part of Karakoy is likely to be the proposed new Galaport cruise terminal, scheduled to open nearby a couple of years hence. That will certainly alter the ambience, but for the moment, Karakoy East should definitely be on your Istanbul to-do list.
Exclusive Escapes (020 8605 3500, http://www.exclusiveescapes.co.uk) has three nights in the city from £850pp B&B, including flights, transfers and a free half-day guide (recommended – they jump the queues). I stayed on the Asian side at Sumahan on the Water, connected to the city (at transport hub Kabatas) by its own little shuttle boat, which also runs to the waterfront clubs/restaurants of Kurucesme just across the Bosphorus, which comes into its own in summer.