In April 2019, Istanbul Cafe and Bakery opened its doors in a nondescript strip mall on Monaco Parkway. Owners Ismet Yilmaz and Soner Celik — both natives of Turkey — opened the restaurant in hopes of bringing real Turkish classics to a market nearly completely devoid of the cuisine. Since opening, the restaurant has grown in well-deserved popularity for its range of sweet and savory baked goods, sandwiches, wraps, salads and rocket fuel-like coffee and tea.
Celik — who previously acted as the Franchise Business Consultant for Wendy’s in Europe, with his Istanbul location acting as the training ground for locations across the continent — moved to Colorado to continue his education. Receiving an undergrad in business from Metro State, he then earned a Masters in Executive Management at Claremont Graduate University in California before returning to Denver to run a string of Panera Breads and Panda Expresses. Yilmaz previously worked in hospitality in Turkey before relocating to New York and then Denver to pursue a career in education, teaching both elementary and middle school for the better part of a decade. Prior to opening Istanbul Cafe, he opened Turkish Cafe on Wheels, a food truck that has been out of service but is set to resume in the coming months. The two met while catering a match at the World Lacrosse Championships after being asked by the president of the Turkish American Cultural Society of Colorado to cater the event.
The duo’s unique sense of hospitality is as much a reason to visit as the food. “When customers come in we sample them four products,” said Celik. The owners clearly take a great deal of satisfaction in watching their customers enjoy the bites, with Celik feeling anything short of a Ratatouille-like aha moment experienced by the cantankerous food critic to be a failure. Fortunately, nearly everything on the menu incites the very same eye-closing nostalgia and the desire to embrace the experience as slowly and deliberately as possible. “It brings people all the way from Aspen and Colorado Springs. One couple even comes all the way from Cheyenne,” said Celik.
While Istanbul Cafe is not the only place in town to get baklava, the distinct focus on sourcing the best pastries and ingredients set it apart from most of its regional peers. “We don’t want to make anything here that our family or kids wouldn’t eat,” said Yilmaz. “We are very specific about the details. Even our olives, we pick from so many olives,” said Celik. The massive trays of desserts are all sourced from Turkish vendors in New York and New Jersey, where they are finished here, baked to adjust for humidity and elevation to golden perfection. “We don’t bring items just to make the case look full. Every item has its own uniqueness,” said Yilmaz. The Doner Wrap ($7.85) comes with thinly sliced beef and lamb, romaine lettuce, sumac-seasoned onions, tomatoes and house-made garlic mint yogurt sauce. The Fistikli Baklava ($1.95/$5.65) comes with 42 layers of filo dough around pistachios and syrup. “Turkish pistachios are smaller, more buttery and have extensive flavor,” said Celik.
While the cafe has succeeded in part due to Denver’s general lack of Turkish cuisine, the place has always strived for excellence even though success could likely be achieved banking only on novelty. “This is becoming more than a coffee shop, it’s becoming more like a cultural center,” smiled Yilmaz. A second location is planned, though no firm date has been set.
Istanbul Cafe and Bakery is located at 850 South Monaco Pkwy. Unit 9, Denver. It is open Monday from 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.
All photography by Kori Hazel.