Efendi – A Neighborhood Bar Passionate for Cocktails
His passion is obvious from the focus of the concept. It’s not a restaurant/bar. Not a café/bar. Not a hotel/bar. It’s a bar/bar. When most bar menus in the city merely consist of usual suspects of cocktails like Satsuma or Mojito, and when most bartenders manufacture drinks like machines from a factory, the owner of Efendi, Kivanc Kasar, creates a soulful place that shares with the public the art of mixology – a term still relatively new to Istanbul. He welcomes all walks of life who would like to give their taste buds a new experience with inspired flavour combinations via well-crafted drinks with a side of good company.
Before opening the doors of Efendi, he lived through many jobs that did not quite suit his character. He has a past in military school. He worked as a banker for 7 years before jumping into advertising when all the while searching for what he was meant to do. Certainly something that involved communication with others. When he found his calling at last, he started – contrary to what most people with his opportunities would do – not straight from the top, but from the bottom of the chain… dishwashing. Moving on to cooking he worked at Aheste Pera, for which he’s grateful to Sara Tabrizi. Then finally, he validated his skills at Alex (the no name bar on Istiklal Street).
While focusing on ways to manifest all that he’s learned, observed and experienced, he caught something that was missing. A sanctuary where each cocktail is meticulously prepared; music – soul funk; people from different backgrounds; located on a narrow residential street. The Neighborhood Bar. Chatty, modest and cheerful, we had a lovely talk with Kivanc about the story of Efendi, and we’d both like to include you in on the conversation.
Basak (B): When I was living in New York, I used to get out of the subway and stop by our neighbourhood bar on my way home, join the Happy Hour cocktails and go home from there. When my friends visited me, we would walk to our bar and have spiked chats for hours. Our friends behind the bar would encourage us to try different flavors. They would take their craft seriously, but that never required an air of arrogance. An atmosphere that I dearly missed in Istanbul. I believe Efendi is a niche place which captures that culture.
Kivanc (K): Yes, there is a “cocktail bar” culture in the rest of the world. We are one of the few pioneers who brought that to Turkey. Amongst them are Alex and Geyik – one should always memorialize the precursors. – The culture that we call “Bar” also has its own subcategories. We are the first to attempt bringing the ‘neighbourhood’ vibe to this city. We are a complete hybrid between ‘bar next door’ and a ‘cocktail bar.’
This is neither a pub nor a restaurant. Why is there no food? Because one shouldn’t lose focus. What’s our focus here? Good conversation, delicious cocktails and awesome music. We shouldn’t lose these components and I believe even the smallest finger-food will disrupt that vibe. Our concentration shouldn’t scatter around and it shouldn’t preclude the conversation.
B: The concept of mixology arrived in Istanbul quite late. Therefore most people can’t differentiate a regular bar from a cocktail bar, which can be a fine line. Successfully catering a bar and creating exciting cocktails are two separate disciplines. In our metropolitan city, why do you think this renaissance just now beginning to flourish?
K: Mixology is a difficult concept in Turkey. One should acknowledge this fact. First of all, it’s the cost – tax, wholesale price, transportation – which is extremely challenging. Alright, “Buy and sell accordingly.” Well, you can’t really do that either because you’re still in Turkey. Whatever the income level, there is a certain expectation on the price point. You need to be logical. Second of all, you can’t get to the product. Large majority of the liqueurs are not available in Turkey. If we could focus on the products, there are so many things we could do, but we can’t get to them.
How can we develop this culture? By slowly introducing people to the concept of craft, explaining it, slowly getting them accustomed to it. Are we doing mixology with the truest sense of the word? We’re merely trying. I mean we need to be realistic here. But we do great cocktails.
B: Who prepares the cocktails of Efendi?
K: Dede (Uğur Tekebaş) is the main creator. He is the real connoisseur. Hence the nickname Dede, which means “Grandpa.” This job requires craftmanship and experience. I respect the younger generations; there are some great bartenders out there. At age 25, they’re far ahead of me. Yet as with everything else in life, having walked miles makes a big difference. That’s why it’s essential to work with someone with tremendous experience.
B: Isn’t that why they say that about mixologists anyways… “bartender with a PhD.” A bartender may know the ingredients of a cocktail, but a mixologist understands why it’s particularly prepared that way.
B: Alright, but do you not contribute at all as the owner of the bar?
K: I modestly suggest a few recipes that I keep under my sleeve. We’ve established a good structure with Dede. When we were developing the first menu, we didn’t open the bar for a month, until it was bullet-proof. Now we’ve moved on to the second menu and again we’ve been trying it for a month. Dede provides the recipes, we study them together, and then we move on to sampling from there. A good group of friends comes over for a tasting.
B: A lucky group of friends…
K: By the way, people who come for the tasting are not necessarily interested in mixology or professionally involved in any way. They vary enormously. We don’t have that kind of approach that caters only to fellow bartenders or connoisseurs.
B: That would deceive the purpose.
K: Exactly. Gourmets are not the only ones who will enjoy our cocktails; everyone comes to our bar. Besides, you can’t make everyone like every single cocktail on the menu. So when they come to the tasting, we observe. Some say, “this is too sour for me” or “no, too sweet.” Or “it’s too simple” or “way too spicy.” We collect and filter all the feedback.
On the other hand, it’s interesting… One particular cocktail in our latest menu, I won’t name it, did not agree with me at all. Not that it all has to be created for me, but I thought it wasn’t going to be liked overall. Dede, our young talented managers Erdi and Mustafa, they all loved it. They said, “Kivanc, this cocktail needs to stay.” And now it’s one of our bestsellers.
At this job, or any job really, one should refrain from being bull-headed. One must listen. You can’t leave a cocktail to a singular person. The craftman prepares it. You give your feedback, and make changes accordingly.
B: What about the customers’ feedback? Because Turkish people actually have a very specific palette. For instance, the ethnic cuisines that I miss so dearly, whether it be Indian or Mexican, they do not suit the general public. In spite of our spicy cuisine, the palettes are not as open-minded to others.
K: Every ethnic origin has a certain palette. That’s a fact. You go to the States or to Europe… For example you see them prepare a cocktail filled with herbs as if it were a dish. In mixology, the possibilities are endless. Yet we know it doesn’t suit the Turkish palette. We could go, say, to the Egyptian Bazaar and create a hell of a show, but we’re against it. You can challenge the taste buds only so far. You may present something new to the people, but you also must be aware of their past habits. We care about the flavor. Will they like the flavor?
B: Using too many products, at least to me, feels like you’re not respecting the premium spirit that carries the cocktail. Let it speak, right?
K: I absolutely agree. I don’t like over-design anyways. Same applies to our cocktails, our interior design and our concept.
B: In any case, isn’t over-design a mere consequence of trying too hard to attract attention…
K: See, that’s what I don’t like. It loses its timeless quality. It’s finished as soon as you see it.
B: Because you consume those kind of gimmicks a lot faster.
K: And that’s exactly what I’d like to avoid. We try to strike the right level of mixology. We believe we’re doing a good job. On the second menu, we wanted to exaggerate a tad more, be more creative. But without losing that delicate, calm balance. What do our people enjoy and what kind of new flavours are they open to? You immediately read the initial reactions of the taste buds. That’s why we are careful to get people accustomed slowly, but surely.
B: In the beginning of our chat, we called Efendi a ‘bar next door.’ Hence the importance of the location. How did you decide on the location (Topagaci/Nisantasi)?
K: I looked around for 2 years. “Neighborhood of Karakoy is in. So let’s take a look at trendy Karakoy alone.” No. That wasn’t it for me. I’ve seen over 300 spaces. That number is no exaggeration. For example, when we first met up with Dede, I described what I had in mind for only five minutes until he said, “A place like this is really coming to Istanbul?” Then he wanted to check out the place and when he did, he said “Now that’s where a cocktail bar ought to be.”
B: And before you know it, you’re the favourite kid in the hood.
K: When we first opened, I had no employees. Just me and Dede. We were sitting around, waiting for clients. He was upset, “Why didn’t we have an opening?” I reassured him, “Wait. This is the right spot. I trust the neighborhood. We will wait. A bar like this should only be heard about through word of mouth.” Thankfully, there’s such a community there that when they checked us out they exclaimed, “This is what we’ve been looking for!” Then I elaborated on each cocktail. I told them, one by one, about the culture of cocktails. We trusted them. They trusted us. It really did happen through word of mouth, and a lot quicker than we anticipated.
B: How about the future of Efendi?
K: The future of Efendi? That’s a really good question. One that everyone is curious about. They tell me that we’ve established an incredible profile. You know how you become a regular, if one comes, one comes again and again. The age group is really interesting. Youngsters enjoy themselves and the next thing I know they’re bringing their families! Intellectualism widely varies as well. There are various point of views. Some say they are reminded of the old Istiklal street from the good old days.
B: The bar attracts a wide range of personalities, as versatile as the characteristics of the cocktails. Quite a wonderful parallel.
K: That’s exactly right. We’ve captured a very cosmopolitan profile. The underlining factor in the question of the future is our customer profile, which we absolutely adore. There’s no segregation. Everyone meets and chats with everybody else. They all love each other. They are already my friends, or they become my friends.
B: The real question is, are you going to be able to preserve it? There are a lot of wonderful places opening up in Istanbul but with popularity, that customer profile you love slowly begins to shift and the vibe that made it great in the first place gets completely degenerated by the overflow of new-comers.
K: I think this place is a product of the public’s desire. It’s not a concept that can discriminate people. I’m sure it will last for at least a few years. But as you said, what we need to be watchful of is the customer profile, and I don’t have short-term concerns regarding that. As long as I have this team behind me.
B: So who makes up the team?
K: We mentioned Dede. The bar side is his domain. In our team we also have young and talented Erdi Ata and Mustafa Arpacı, whom I call the showmen of the hospitality sector. You know as well, Efendi became the spot to be and it’s partially their doing. At the end of the night, everyone thanks them and leaves with a smile. When the bar becomes overwhelming, especially on the weekends, that customer satisfaction is due to them. I’m proud of them.
We also have in our team my dear friend Hasan Sefa Sofuoğlu, a talented interior architect. A graduate of Milano Domus, in addition to architecture he also does design. We’ve done this place with our hands. At the end of the day, that’s your outfit. Just think how essential that is. We designed the outfit of the bar with Sefa and I’m grateful. I even named a cocktail in our latest menu after him. To commemorate him.
B: Honoring the camaraderie. Respecting the team players. Unfortunately it’s an extremely rare sentiment in our culture. Egos always get in the way of team spirit.
K: Oh yes. It’s always “I did it! I made it!” On the contrary, I’m a team-man. All of our sweat and tears made this place possible. That’s what makes it special. Collaboration is what shows you what works and doesn’t. Without Sefa, the interior design wouldn’t have reflected the character of the bar as stylishly. Without Erdi and Mustafa, the turnover wouldn’t flow this smoothly. Without Dede, the cocktail menu wouldn’t have been what it is today. As much as I am involved, I also really enjoy learning from them. We can’t do it all by ourselves. You can go only so far. You need to share.
B: Speaking of sharing… I’m sure everyone is already insistently asking you, “Any plans to turn Efendi into a chain and share it with other locations?”
K: Currently, I’m keeping my distance from the idea of a chain, though of course one should never say never. After all, there is such a thing as commerce. But I think people feel that we’re keeping that thought at bay. At the maximum, I may consider a summer place around the Aegean. If we don’t get scattered from one place to another, then I can ensure the future of this business.
B: Now let’s see Kivanc Kasar’s personal cocktail preferences.
B: Sweet or sour?
K: When developing our menu, we always try to strike a balance. That balance is important in a cocktail. But my personal preference would be sour.
B: Short glass or tall?
B: Earthy herbal or tropical?
K: Earthy herbal.
B: Fruit or spice?
K: Both. Absolutely both. I cannot choose.
B: Tequila or rum?
B: Vodka or gin?
K: Gin. Definitely.