The Death of the Restaurant Car
The Death of the Restaurant Car
A plate of feta-filled “cigarette” pastries. Watery instant coffee with an off-market Coffee-Mate in a Turkish State Railways (TCDD) logoed cup. Glasses of flat beer. The sinister stench of frying oil, trapped in the deep fryer a few meters away, begging to be disposed of. Based on these dining experiences alone, I shouldn’t be missing the restaurant cars of the long distance TCDD trains of my youth; yet I do, anytime I take a train anywhere. A lot.
Over the last 25 years—between my first memories of the restaurant car and my last, a disappointing encounter to say the least—the politics and culture of Turkey, the country I was born in, changed drastically. As a child, I grew up in a country that aspired to Western values and made an active effort to become a part of the European Union, a now forlorn ideal. As my tweens turned into 20s—and later, 30s—the elected government grew increasingly more authoritarian, using both soft power and coercion to achieve the conservative and quiet society they envisioned. Surprisingly, the fate of restaurant cars was the last battleground between the secularist old guard and the conservative new guard over the right to serve alcohol in public spaces.
Historically, the state-owned railways and the institutional culture tied to it are a soft spot for Turkey’s secular old guard. At the tail end of the Ottoman era, the railways were owned and operated by foreign companies; among them was Wagons-Lits, the French railway company that came up with the concept of luxurious sleeper train travel for its famous Orient Express. Yearning to be fully independent and within only a few years of its commencement, the young and penniless Turkish Republic started buying the rights to operate the railroad tracks (while keeping Lits on retainer as a vendor). As early as 1926, the Republic also began running a high-end restaurant on the sleeper trains between Istanbul, the empire’s old capital, and Ankara, the modern state’s new capital.
“Back then, train travel represented a different kind of prestige,” says Nevres Ruhan Çelebi, the founding director of the TCDD Istanbul Railway Museum located at the pink and pompous Sirkeci Train Station, a building dating back to 1890. A third-generation TCDD employee and a former director of the state-owned company’s food and beverage department, Çelebi launched the museum singlehandedly in 2005, combining the historical artefacts she had been collecting over the years. She salvaged furniture, documents, and equipment — going back to the Ottoman era — from the trash after the first wave of railway privatization took place in 2004. “In the early days of the republic, bureaucrats used the train between Istanbul and Ankara, and it was considered the best way to travel,” she explains. “I remember this from going to the Ankara Railway Station as a child with my father, who also worked for TCDD. Two hours before the departure, the train staff, dressed to the nines, would line up in front of the train doors and greet everyone. They were like flight attendants. At the restaurant car, the waiters wore white gloves.”
On the menu were items from Turkish and French cuisines, state-owned Tekel’s red and white wines made from grapes in Turkey’s southeast, and rakı, an ouzo and pastis-like high-proof anise drink that is traditionally served with mezes, a trove of olive oil-driven Middleterranean appetizers. The silver cutlery and the branded, fine porcelain ware that were used for service are still displayed at the museum in the French vitrines lining the walls. Though Lits transferred all of their equipment to TCDD in 1972 and left the country, the dining culture TCDD inherited from the company stuck around.
“About 35 years ago, I used to go to Ankara by train a lot, and TCDD had the most elegant rakı service I’ve ever seen,” says Haldun Dostoğlu, the 68-year-old curator and the co-founder of Istanbul-based Galeri Nev, with an undeniable fondness. “There was a certain stretch of years when we really looked forward to dining on the train. The waiter would appear holding a tray of rakı glasses, a glass measuring cup, a bottle of water, and an ice bucket. Resisting the rocking of the train over the rails, with the utmost grace, he first poured the rakı in the measuring cup, then transferred it into the glass, and finished by adding the water and ice on top. Not a single drop spilled on his tray as he went on with the process.”
Rakı is rarely drunk without appetizers, so he and his friends nibbled on feta cheese, slices of melon, and roasted eggplant salad as the nearly eight-hour journey began. “I really miss talking to friends while dining at the restaurant car, and eventually falling asleep in the sleeper car to the sound of the train clanking over the rails,” he reminiscences.
By 1995, the first year I remember seeing the restaurant car, the white gloves and the silver cutlery were long gone. But it was still OK to drink and smoke in the restaurant car. Restless as children get, my mom, my toddler brother and I took walks through cars, up until we hit the smoke-filled restaurant car as the train rattled through the snowy landscape from Istanbul, where we lived, to our hometown, Eskişehir. Behind the glass door, with its white tablecloths, tiny porcelain vases carrying fresh carnations, and large groups of friends chatting, the restaurant car looked like a party on wheels. Men and women drank Efes, the local beer, as they snacked on roasted, salty peanuts; or, they munched on a plate of index finger-shaped köfte, Turkish meatballs, served with a side of buttery white rice, a roasted pepper, and half of a tomato. Later, as a sulky teenager and then college student searching for identity, I sat in the restaurant car countless times, slurping beers trying to impress a guy I liked, and waiting for that magical moment where the rails are so close to the edge of the Marmara Sea that it feels like the train is literally moving on the surface of the sea. Although at this point—around the mid 2000s—the food was offensively bad, this stretch of the trip was still best enjoyed from the restaurant car.
I asked Ali Yavuz, a friend I often ran into in the restaurant car during my early 20s, why people like us insisted on sitting there. “Oh, just to be together,” he answered. “To be perfectly honest, the restaurant car was like a bad meyhane at best. The food wasn’t good. Back when people were allowed to smoke in the train, a heavy fog hung in the air. But we liked hanging out there, and we liked being able to have a beer whenever we felt like it.”
Together, Ali and I recounted the names of the trains and what they looked like, which were mysteriously unsearchable on the Internet: the navy and red “Başkent” (“the capital” in Turkish), which was a relatively new train; “Fatih” (“the conqueror”), which left Ankara around late night and arrived at the beautiful Haydarpaşa station in Istanbul with the first lights of the morning; the eggshell blue “Anadolu” (“Anatolia”) which was a train from the ’60s and definitely smelt and looked like it with its formica covered, moth-eaten French lace-curtained dining car. We then counted the menu items we could remember: the ever-present köfte, cigarette pastries (fried phyllo dough filled with feta cheese—frankly, they should be called cigar pastries), french fries, and mezes like the milky, dried mint-speckled haydari and the bright red acılı ezme. The elusive fried liver was always on the menu but, for reasons unknown, rarely available.
The AK Party, who first came to rule in 2003 with promises of freedom and peace, began actively seeking votes from Turkey’s liberals and the country’s tight-knit LGBTQ+ community. However, since 2011, it grew more authoritarian and less tolerant of outwardly-secular lifestyles. The party also became increasingly obsessed with both new transportation projects, and where and when alcoholic beverages should be consumed. New roads were built alongside brand new, high-speed train tracks cutting the travel time between Istanbul and Ankara to half. Meanwhile, a series of bans on alcohol were implemented, starting with the neighborhood bars. In 2011, serving alcohol on the outside tables of the restaurants and bars were banned in Istanbul, followed by another law banning the sale of alcohol after 10 PM in 2013. The same law marked the end of advertisements for liquor, spirits, wine and beer brands, and sponsorship opportunities. In 2014, five years after high speed trains first started operating, alcohol was “retracted” from all railway lines, citing an overall “lack of consumer interest.” These days, the only food options on the train are pre-packaged snacks and microwaveable airplane food served on a plastic tray, wrapped in the cheapest single-use plastic. Meanwhile, on the ground, wine, beer, liquor, and spirits are taxed at over 69 percent, and the prices for alcoholic drinks have grown exorbitantly high over the last five years.
Many people in Turkey, including myself, can’t help but feel targeted by AK Party’s “ideological” lifestyle-related decisions. The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey. The death of the restaurant car is also a missing link from an ongoing narrative of the republic. From construction and architecture, to landscape planning and dictating, where and how exactly the public can and should socialize, this hegemony’s cultural policy is based on taking away, not unlike a vacuum cleaner. At the end of the day, what we are left with is the discontinuity and emptiness.
The restaurant car didn’t serve the best food or drinks in my lifetime. But the way it left my life is very symbolic of the way the anti-conservative lifestyles slowly retract and evaporate from the public spaces in Turkey.
In 2017, when I last walked into the restaurant car of the Eskişehir-İzmir train in the wee hours in hopes of a cup of coffee, I immediately wished I hadn’t. In the 7 AM light, the curtains, tablecloths, and porcelain ware were all gone. I caught a glimpse of the all-steel kitchen, the equipment still there but sterile like an operation room. I looked at the empty restaurant car with shame, as if it was left clothless against its will, a scene of obscenity or something’s deathbed.
I asked for a coffee. The clerk, a young man wearing a tughra-imprinted ring, offered a paper cup with some hot water and a gold-tinted aluminium diffuser with a few holes poked on one end. It was Italian coffee and I had to stir it until the instant coffee dissolved, he explained, not looking into the eyes of a single woman travelling by herself. Instead, plastic-looking breakfast sandwiches wrapped in more plastic looked back at me. Did getting to a place faster always mean progress, especially if all that was left to look forward to were these shitty sandwiches? I still doubt it.