Cafe Divan is still a Turkish delight
By Justin Rude
Jan. 17, 2011
When Cavit Ozturk opened his modest Wisconsin Avenue restaurant, Cafe Divan, almost a decade ago, his was one of the only Turkish games in town. Sure, there were some fantastic options in Northern Virginia, but good Turkish in the District was something to get excited about.
In the intervening years, such relative newcomers as Ezme, Cafe 8, Zaytinya and Agora have intensified the competition. Yet Cafe Divan gamely soldiers on, sitting largely unchanged in the awkwardly shaped corner bay beneath Georgetown Hill Inn.
One of Cafe Divan's main draws has always been its dining room, which manages the chic appeal of a contemporary European cafe without coming off as forced or contrived. The dining room's large windows, high ceilings, flagstone walls and warm Mediterranean colors give it an airy, comfortable atmosphere that counterbalances the tight floor plan. What's more, unlike its new competition, the dining room can feel busy without sounding like a platform at a train station.
Behind the high wall that separates the dining room from the kitchen, things have also remained relatively stable - the restaurant's first and only chef, Yucel Atalay, still runs the show.
Cafe Divan hasn't been sitting entirely idle: The Cafe Divan Sea Room, a full-service bar that also offers the restaurant's full menu, opened three years ago, and Ozturk and Atalay continue to tinker with their menu, adding entrees and appetizers as recently as last Friday. The new menu items include two recipes that Ozturk brought back recently from Istanbul: kavurma, beef tenderloin finely sliced and served over rice with sauteed vegetables, and hunkar begendi, tender chunks of lamb over smoked, mashed eggplant and topped with cheese.
Of course, at Cafe Divan it has always been about the doner kebab. Unlike many Turkish eateries, Divan serves the thinly sliced, spit-cooked blend of lamb and veal daily, constructing and marinating the loaf every night for the next day's service. The iskender kebab - slices of doner kebab basted with tomato sauce and served over bread and covered in yogurt sauce - is a rich, tangy treat and one of the restaurant's bestsellers. Tender lamb shank baked with slices of eggplant and tomato is another winning and popular choice. And although Middle Eastern small plates aren't nearly as exciting as they were when Divan opened, the mezze platter here, highlighted by flaky cheese pastries, chickpea dip and red lentil kofte (think subtly spiced vegetarian sausage), is still a nice way to start a meal.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes at the restaurant has been the addition of weekend breakfast service. Such Western favorites as eggs Benedict are given a Turkish twist with pastirma, a type of cured beef, instead of smoked ham. There is also a selection of flaky stuffed pastries and a traditional Turkish breakfast: boiled eggs, cheeses, olives, fruit, bread, jam and honey.
The knock against Divan has always been that it is a wonderful option if you live in the neighborhood, but probably not worth traveling for. The recent influx of Turkish restaurants into the city hasn't made it any easier for the small restaurant to kick this image. Even if it were doomed to be just a neighborhood cafe, its chic, comfortable dining room and well-cooked classic menu would make it one to envy. If you haven't checked out Cafe Divan in a while, do yourself a favor and take a trip back. You could do much worse for meeting friends over plates of delicious doner kebab.