The snack stand at the head of the 1970s Hippie Trail
A brief history of the Pudding Shop in Istanbul
Hello, Snackers. We’re heading back in time today to the most famous restaurant on the 1970s Hippie Trail across Europe and Asia.
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Istanbul’s Pudding Shop
Even if you’ve never been to Istanbul, a quick scan of a map (here’s one!) will lead your eyes to a few specific places. The first is the Bosporus, the strait that cleaves the sprawling metropolis in two, unmistakable as the natural landmark of note. Then, as you look more closely at the land on either side of that watery gap, a few landmarks will probably sound familiar, particularly on the peninsula to the west: there’s Hagia Sophia; there’s the Blue Mosque, a five-minute walk away; and, hey, right over there, on the north side, is the New Mosque (which opened in 1663).
All three of these spectacular buildings are within Eminönü, a part of Istanbul that was once the heart of the ancient city of Byzantium and is now—because of all that history and architecture—a major tourist draw, with plenty of hostels and hotels and gift shops and the like. There’s also at least one tourist restaurant that has become a landmark in its own right, specifically because of its history with tourists.
Here it is, right in the middle of this streetscape:
Lale Restaurant, better known as Pudding Shop, might not look like much, and TripAdvisor puts it at the 611th-ranked restaurant in Istanbul, but it definitely has a story.
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Pudding Shop opened in 1957, right at the dawn of mass tourism. This was the year that Arthur Frommer published the first edition of his book Europe on Five Dollars a Day, giving American budget travelers a guide and inspiration to venture around Europe; the first long-haul commercial jet route, New York to Paris, debuted in 1958; and the Eurail pass launched in 1959 (European travel in this era is a fascinating story and if you want to read more, I wrote a whole book).
As mass tourism boomed, it also branched. There were the package-tour travelers, so ubiquitous that they were soon lampooned in the 1969 movie If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium; there were also hippie backpackers, who often sought out the backroads, including routes across Europe and Asia, for which Lonely Planet was the preferred guidebook.
This page from the Palm Beach Post-Times travel section in 1972 sums up the two dominant American views of overseas travel at the time:
Package tours with Millie or Alan or American Express … or “Going Across Asia” on your own in search of “Money, Adventure, Spiritual Treasure.” These are your options.
If you chose the latter and started your long-haul trip in Istanbul, you almost certainly stopped at the Pudding Shop. Here’s a close-up of that same newspaper page:
Pudding Shop was the head of the hippie tourist trail in the 1970s. The restaurant’s website has photos from this period and a ton of newspaper clippings, along with this explanation for its popularity:
At the time The Pudding Shop was the only place in the area the adventurous could get direct transport to Asia and tourist information on Turkey. The tourists made The Pudding Shop famous, using it as a meeting place and message center. Idris Çolpan explained that ‘pilgrims’ travelling East, often driving old cars or Volkswagen vans, would stop at his restaurant to meet new acquaintances and find other travellers with whom to share expenses and experiences.
Pudding Shop was famous for its bulletin board, a place to leave messages for friends or missed connections, or to a request for a ride to Kathmandu. It was a crossroads and a gathering ground, although, to be sure, it was far from the only place that served this role. One dispatch, from the Long Beach, California Press-Telegram in 1973, described the new eateries popping up to cater to hippie tourists:
Part restaurant, part counterculture community center, these oases supply cheap food and the latest in rock, plus a place to exchange information, arrange rides, or buy, sell or swap anything from guitars and sleeping bags to stolen passports or the drug of one’s choice.
But Pudding Shop was in a category unto itself. Part of it was a matter of geography and a perception that Istanbul was right at the border between two vastly different worlds. In story after story, the tale is told breathlessly, consistently, and a bit conspiratorially: What lies on the other side of the Bosporus is something unknown and exotic, a vast land of dust and bribes and hash (all recurring themes in the various dispatches of the time). “Istanbul represents to the unhurried traveler the last ‘civilized’ stop on the way to India overland through Iran and Afghanistan,” read one typical piece, which ran in the Wilmington, Delaware Morning News in 1976.
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When that’s your perspective, there’s a certain logic to the fact that Pudding Shop was also one of the few restaurants listed in the hippie-trail travel stories of the 1970s that actually served food of its place.
Then, as now, the specialty was simple Turkish fare like kebabs (though, these days, you can also get onion rings and spring rolls). While there’s not doubt that American, Australian, and Western European backpackers and other travelers changed the look and feel of Istanbul—as tourists have done since forever and as they did here, specifically, by calling Lale Restaurant Pudding Shop—it seems that they were at least somewhat inclined to enjoy Turkish food on its own terms, and it’s worth noting that Pudding Shop was (and is!) locally owned.
Head further east, though, and the travel recommendations change:
Siggies in Kabul, with its hot dogs, strawberry milkshakes and hard rock, Aunt Janes and Amity in Kathmandu, the former featuring sloppy joes and peanut butter pie, the latter, home cooking by a middle-aged lady from Carmel, Calif. who could be anybody’s apple-pie-baking mother; or New Delhi’s pizza joint-discotheque, the Carousel, are typical of the spots that have sprung up along the kids’ route.
Not quite so extreme are the haunts for the spice and rice-sated traveler such as Wimpy’s, a hamburger stand where Tehran’s version of lowriders hang out; a great soul food place and a Kentucky Fried Chicken emporium in Bangkok, a kosher restaurant in Hong Kong and a McDonald’s in Tokyo.
In a small way, I get it, as someone who understands the grounding nature of a familiar food when you’ve been traveling (I’ve eaten Tex-Mex in Berlin and pizza in Havana). A reversion to your favorite things is a sometimes necessary way to reset your mind and get your bearings before going back into the unknown. But when all of your meals or all of your recommendations circle back to “this reminds me of home!,” what’s the point of leaving the house, you know?
And it’s interesting to me that when it comes to food, the travel stories of this era focus on where to find American meals—except at the Pudding Shop, precisely because the surrounding city is perceived to be “civilized.” The restaurant is of that place, so hippie backpackers viewed it from that perspective; in places that seemed more “exotic” to them, there was, seemingly, a stronger desire to get have a hot dog and a milkshake and tune out the surroundings.
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Pudding Shop is still open and still popular with tourists, although it’s not the hippie-traveler crossroads it once was. For some of those 1970s backpackers, the restaurant itself has become a place to recall the starting point of a journey they will never recreate. In 2020, restaurant owner Namık Çolpan told the Turkish newspaper Milliyet:
A German hippie had stolen a salt cellar from us, because they were sleeping rough and eating cucumbers and tomatoes all the time. When he came back in 1993 as a businessman, ‘I needed the salt cellar at that time, now I brought it back to say thank you,’ he said. They used to see Lale Restaurant as their home.’
You can still get all kinds of snacks and other foods at Pudding Shop, but what comes along with it now, for many customers, is less a sense of forthcoming adventure than backward-looing nostalgia. Still, the food looks delicious.
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