Rejans was always more club than restaurant, spinning history and Russian food into a web of nostalgia. It was a ritual to go there, and to watch the level of the lemon vodka sink with the conveniently invisible sun. Over time, the elegant emigrées who greeted one faded away, a fire in 1976 left its scars and, as Istanbul trebled its population, Beyoğlu lost its relevance and resonanace. Rejans limped on until closing in 2011. Then Sashah Anton Khan, who had made his name with 360, moved in. He appreciated the value that the past can have and, under the name 1924, has reopened a restaurant which builds on rather than denies tradition.
Rejans opened in late 1931, and the Madame Jozefin whose name plaque is beside Kemal Atatürk’s is the great Josephine Baker, who got here in 1934 (and 1973). The later plaques include World War II ambassadors Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen and Franz von Papen, bitter rivals jousting for Turkey, with the German buoyed up by reports stolen by his British counterpart’s Albanian valet, “Cicero”, and knowing he was paying for these with counterfeit notes.
The history of what happened in 1924 or earlier is above my pay grade and a bit wacky. Other names on 1924’s wall include Mata Hari, who did indeed come to Istanbul – but in 1897. Hemingway too – he came in 1922. And Greta Garbo – who came in late 1924 for the never-completed Odalisk from Smolensk: German inflation bankrupted the production company and the rushes were confiscated by the Turkish customs.
In the past, writers, artists and journalists were Rejans’ key clientele. Today, it is more a place for businessmen and for couples who want the continuing edge of nostalgia.
Part of the reason for this are the prices, in the middle to upper range. But the three evenings I have recently spent there impressed with the range and quality of the food. The Russian zeitgeist remains and the borscht, piroshky, blini, pelmeni (dumplings), and vegetables are just fine. I don’t eat meat but others were happy with the Chicken Kievsky, Beef Stroganoff and – not always on the menu – roast duck. And with the range of vodkas. Hayırlı olsun.
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