Stoke Newington Road in Dalston is at the heart of what is now a thriving community of Turkish restaurants. Back in 1994, though, Mangal 2 was – as the name might suggest – just the second oçakbasi restaurant in the area.
Ali Dirik moved to London from Turkey in 1984, headhunted by a businessman and brought over in order to open what is now known as Mangal 1. The first of its kind in London, all cooking was done on the ocakbasi grill – essentially a Turkish indoor charcoal barbecue. Dirik then went on to open Mangal 2, a restaurant with a larger seating capacity and a more varied menu that incorporated mezze and a variation of Turkish dishes, expanding it beyond simply the kebab offering that had been popularised at Mangal 1. The process of operating both restaurants became too much and Dirik sold his portion of the first Mangal to his business partner in order to focus all of his energy on Mangal 2.
Despite being the first of their kind in the area, the Dalston locale made sense. In the early 1990s there was a large number of Turkish immigrants living and working in the east London suburb, drawn by the textile factories in the area. It was the perfect location to open the restaurant – feeding the community rather than waiting for diners to come to you.
Justin De Souza
Justin De Souza
The restaurant quickly garnered cult status, and led to a number of similar eateries opening in the vicinity. The artists Gilbert & George were said to eat there weekly for dinner. And in 2016, Dirik handed over the reins of the restaurant to his son Ferhat, who successfully kept the restaurant going almost exactly how his dad ran it for nearly six years, albeit increasing its reputation by way of a hilarious, irreverent and now-defunct Twitter account that provided acerbic commentary on politics, culture and the hipsters who ate there.
It may have been a hit with diners from Dalston locals to rapper Action Bronson, but Ferhat wanted more. “All I was doing pre-pandemic was maintaining the restaurant,” Ferhat tells me, “keeping the place afloat and keeping it ticking over, but nothing to the extent of my passion.” And then, in 2020, the Covid pandemic hit, decimating the hospitality industry. “That was when we really started to flip the script,” he says. “Just lock it down, and build it back up again.”
Ferhat’s younger brother Sertaç, who had been working as a chef at some of Copenhagen’s most acclaimed restaurants, returned to the UK. The stars had aligned to bring Ferhat’s long-term plans for Mangal 2 to fruition – changing the menu with the help of Sertaç and highlighting Turkish cuisine as a food to take seriously outside of the confines of grilled meats and mezze.
My ethos has always been that I want the restaurant to be somewhere that I would be excited to dine in
It took nearly two years for the metamorphosis of Mangal 2 to take place, as the brothers quietly tinkered away and made changes to the menu: removing free bread and offering an impeccable sourdough pide in its place (with a small, completely justifiable charge), opening up the menu to Turkish classics like manti dumplings and scrapping the BYO policy in favour of a refined selection of natural wines and craft beers from local breweries.
“When the pandemic happened, the restaurant wasn’t exactly failing, but it wasn’t doing as well as it could be,” Ferhat tells me. “So I guess we figured if we were gonna sink, we may as well do it swinging upwards. If we’re gonna fail, we want to fail on our own terms.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive, from industry publications to glowing reviews in major newspapers, culminating in the restaurant bagging number 35 in the National Restaurant Awards in 2022. But, as with anything new, they had their fair share of detractors, particularly from people for whom the restaurant had been a stalwart in their daily lives. “We had a lot of negative responses to what we were doing from local proprietors and older customers, who were used to dining here and paying £16 for a big bowl of food,” Ferhat says. “I try to understand, they feel like we’ve taken away some nostalgic element of their lives. But there are, literally just on this stretch of road, seven or eight places that do the exact same thing.
“My ethos has always been that I want the restaurant to be somewhere that I would be excited to dine in,” he continues. “The menu we had prior was literally copy-and-paste. Every other restaurant would copy it, and it would just be the same sort of thing you could find everywhere. Whereas, with Sertaç’s abilities we can be a true London restaurant with Turkish roots.”
That is not to say that the changes have wiped out the bones of what Mangal 2 was. As Ferhat himself puts it so succinctly, they have simply reimagined the restaurant in terms of what it means to be a London restaurant, rather than an “Anatolian restaurant that's been brought to the UK.” That means you’ll still find kofte on the menu, but it will be made with regenerative farmer Matt Chatfield’s cull yaw. Mushroom manti dumplings are made with meaty wild mushrooms. There’s hummus served with grilled chickpeas and slow-cooked lamb shoulder in lieu of doner meat – a dish that was impossible to keep profitable while still sticking to their commitment to high-quality ingredients. “We didn’t want to price the döner at £33, but we also didn’t want to keep selling it at a margin that didn’t make sense,” says Ferhat. These dishes will all herald something that used to be on the Mangal 2 menu, but they’re simply given the same thought and care as a dish at any leading London restaurant, via a philosophy that aimed to have at least one part of each dish – including desserts – grilled on the ocakbasi.
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So, what does the patriarch of the Dirik family have to say about it? “He’s very proud and very excited,” says Ferhat. “He also doesn’t completely get it, in the sense that he just trusts us to do what we’re doing. And that’s completely understandable, because it’s very different from what he did. But predominantly he’s just happy that we can move on and build something.”
Mangal 2 was a London institution in the 1990s, and it’s still a London institution now, nearly 30 years later. It has remained under the same ownership since it opened, no mean feat in a city with a fickle dining scene that sees restaurants opening and closing at a rapid pace. To adapt is to survive, and in the case of Mangal 2, Ferhat and Sertaç haven’t so much adapted as grown. Mangal 2 in its initial form could likely have survived, continuing to attract the same sort of customers it always has, but the brothers saw an opportunity to create a new type of Turkish restaurant in London. Much like how their dad brought the ocakbasi to London all those years before.