Turkish restaurant owner continues to make an impact in Pittsburgh area

Istanbul Sofra, a Turkish restaurant in Regent Square, is rated as the No. 1 dining spot in Pittsburgh on the travel website TripAdvisor, based on customer reviews.

That may seem surprising, given Pittsburgh’s penchant for meat and potatoes, french fries on salads or sandwiches and anything Italian, but this may be a testament to the ambition and hospitality of owner Adnan Pehlivan, who immigrated from Tarsus in south-central Turkey.

“I wanted to earn respect in the city, to show our culture, hospitality and try to make it different,” said Mr. Pehlivan, 45. “I want the majority of Pittsburgh, about a 20-mile radius from our restaurant, to know where and what Istanbul Sofra is, who I am, and what we are trying to do. We want to serve high-quality food with high-quality hospitality.”

The BYOB restaurant at the intersection of Forbes and Braddock celebrated its second anniversary in April. It just introduced breakfast and has expanded into a building behind the restaurant to create a private dining/​meeting space.

Sofra in Turkish means table, and the restaurant serves authentic Turkish dishes the way they’re served in this Eurasian country. Mr. Pehlivan used to visit wholesaler Vintage Food Corp. in Kearny, N.J., every month to pick up fresh ingredients shipped directly from Turkey, but now he receives a delivery from Vintage every 15 days.

“The main thing is the fresh ingredients,” he said. “We use all Turkish seasonings and I use nothing but Australian and New Zealand lamb. We also prepare everything from scratch on the morning of and not the night before.”

Amy Gordon, a customer from Forest Hills, said that a lot of things set Istanbul Sofra apart from other restaurants in Pittsburgh.

“The food is really delicious, and I really like the preparation and freshness of it,” she said. “You can get just about anything on the menu somewhere else in the city, but it is always just a little bit finer here than anywhere else in town. It’s very consistent, and we’ve never had a bad course.”

The restaurant’s three chefs are from Turkey.

“My main chef is my childhood friend Edip Sensel, who is from Adana, Turkey,” Mr. Pehlivan said. “The other two are top-notch chefs from Turkey as well. My sister, Gulendam Ispir, is from Tarsus, and Enis Kacar is from Izmir.”

When he came to the U.S. in 1995, Mr. Pehlivan worked for cruise lines for two years until he took a job with Hilton Hotels. For 20 years he filled a variety of positions while moving along the East Coast from Harrisburg to Washington, D.C., with a few hotels in Northern Virginia in between. Then he returned to Turkey for two years to direct operations at the Adana Hilton before moving back to the United States to establish his Pittsburgh restaurant.

“I chose Pittsburgh because it is one of the fastest-growing cities,” he said. “After all of the steel factories shutting down, I saw a lot of potential in the city. There are lots of different headquarters and big-time industries coming here.”

He opened Istanbul Sofra on April 21, 2014. It’s now open every day of the year — except April 21.

“We close the restaurant, and I hold an appreciation day for all of my customers. I invite as many as possible to come and enjoy a private dinner at the restaurant, and they are allowed to order anything they want on the menu,” Mr. Pehlivan said. “It’s my way of showing my appreciation and saying thank you.”

New to the menu is breakfast, which is offered Friday, Saturday and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“There is no breakfast like a Turkish breakfast,” he said. “It is the largest around the world and full of variety, and this is the only place in Pittsburgh that serves it.”

It includes a variety of omelettes, large breakfast platter with a cheeses, eggs and vegetables with a choice of tea or coffee and also a signature dish called Melemen, which is a mixture of eggs, vegetables and a blend of Turkish spices.

Mr. Pehlivan also recently purchased the space formerly occupied by Animal Nature pet foods behind his restaurant and has turned it into a private dining or meeting space. He has equipped the room with a laptop and a projector along with a meeting desk, tables and seating for 55 people.

He said it’s a way of helping to upgrade business development on the East End. “There’s a lot of options Downtown for businesses, but this side of the city needs more. I’m trying to support the small and local businesses in Pittsburgh.”

Pittsburgh’s patchwork of neighborhoods supports a variety of ethnicities and cultures, and Mr. Pehlivan believes that his restaurant does a good job of educating customers about Mediterranean cuisine.

“People from everywhere come here because our cuisine fits every single culture,” said Mr. Pehlivan. “It doesn’t matter what religion you are or what culture you’re from. Everyone can like this food.”

John Edgar of Park Place has been to Istanbul Sofra many times because he said he likes the variety on the menu, the location and the ability to bring your own alcohol.

“I enjoy the food, and I like to try something different on the menu every time,” said Mr. Edgar.

Although not every customer review on TripAdvisor is glowing, Istanbul Sofra has managed to stay at the top of the list of more 1,600 restaurants in the Pittsburgh area since it opened.

Mr. Pehlivan said he is proud of what he has created and everything he has accomplished so far in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve been to 36 different states and 47 different countries,” he said, “and Pittsburgh is the friendliest city I’ve ever been in.”

Shea Beaumont: sbeaumont@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.


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