The Pudding shop: a small restaurant with a huge impact

Between the busy streets of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, at the foot of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, lies the famous Lale restaurant, also known as “The Pudding Shop”. From afar I can already see the owner Namik Colpan and his cousin Adem Colpan sitting proudly on a bench in front of the once so popular hippie hangout. But what is actually left of it?

The two welcomed me kindly with tea and various types of pudding in the restaurant.  In the past, those who could not remember the name of the restaurant nicknamed it after pudding. Namik and Adem start to tell all its colourful details about the restaurant in the sixties and put memory after memory on the table during our meeting.

Arise of the restaurant
Namik and his brother Idris first opened their doors in 1957 as a pastry shop for locals. However, the restaurant really became popular in the sixties. Long-haired Western youths, also known as “hippies”, gathered to follow the Hippie Trail. A travel route from Western Europe to India and Nepal which was popular in the sixties and seventies among young Western people. Often as cheap as possible by means of the Magic Bus or hitchhiking from place to place. The Lale restaurant played an important role for many hippies who followed the Hippie Trail. The Magic Bus stopped in front of the door twice a week and the restaurant quickly turned into a meeting place and information center for these hippies, centered around the well-known bulletin board next to the bar. It worked as a social medium. You could leave messages there, get in touch with like-minded people, share problems, et cetera. At the time, the Lale restaurant was also the first and only place in that area where you could send letters abroad. The hippies took over the Lale restaurant and that was also visible in the fumes of hash that flew through the place and the Rock music that was played in the background.

Two cultures living together
Even though the gap between Western and Turkish culture was huge, it rarely caused problems in the restaurant or the city. At the time, Turkish youths looked in amazement at the hippies who entered the restaurant. “They even missed their bus by staring at the passing hippies,” Adem says. The integration of the two cultures in the restaurant came from both sides. “For example, the hippies taught us how to make Nescafé or scrambled eggs, and we taught them about Turkish hospitality.” Namik and Idris loved the hippies deeply and the hippies loved them. They showed this to them through heartwarming deeds. For example, lending money to hippies to continue their travels. He always got the money back. Or a hippie whom one day insisted on joining the Magic Bus to India while there were no spots left. Idris lent him a chair from the restaurant so that he could put it on the bus and could still go. Idris also got the chair back from him after the trip. As Idris said: “If you don’t give, you get nothing in return.” His son Adem believes that this Turkish hospitality has largely determined the great success of the restaurant.

Restaurant nowadays
Nowadays, the restaurant is not a meeting place for hippies anymore. As a result of the unsafety in the Middle East and the rise of affordable air travel, the Hippie Trail became history. Also, with the arrival of mobile phones, sending letters was no longer relevant. The Lale restaurant nowadays sells its history, tells Adem. The guests in the restaurant are mainly tourists who have read about the restaurant or former hippies who return, according to stories from Adem and guests sitting in the restaurant. An American woman named Katherine, who enjoys a pudding in the restaurant with her husband, confirms this: “I saw the restaurant with the interesting story behind it in a tourist guide and really wanted to visit the place myself. Also, because it’s located near the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque which we already wanted to visit as well.”

So, when you’re in Istanbul, swing by to taste the nostalgia and collect stories from the hippie era. Even though meeting hippies or posting notes on the bulletin board will now be difficult at the Lale restaurant, it is still possible to enjoy Turkish cuisine and hospitality. One thing is certain, this small restaurant located at the foot of the Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque has had a huge positive impact on the city, tourism in Turkey, and maybe most important: the lives of a lot of people.