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The Turk’s Inn restaurant is inside a building that looks like a white house, with a red awning and a neon “Turk’s Inn” sign up top.
A bit of Hayward, Wisconsin transplanted to the dusty streets of Bushwick

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Bushwick’s Eccentric New Supper Club Blasts the Eyes But Not the Palate

The Turk’s Inn has some gems, but most of the focus seems to be on being an Instagram magnet, says critic Robert Sietsema

The Turk’s Inn can be an annoying place to eat. First off, there’s the backstory, endlessly repeated on the menu and website, in the food press, and by the excited restaurant staff. The story begins: In 1934, an Armenian immigrant named George Gogian opened a restaurant in the north-woods town of Hayward, Wisconsin. (As a former Wisconsinite I can tell you, if Hayward is famous for anything, it’s because Al Capone’s hideaway was nearby, making it easy for him to escape to Minnesota or Michigan.)

Despite its Turkish theme and some real Turkish food like boreks and baklava, Gogian vaguely patterned his restaurant on the Wisconsin supper clubs popular back then. But he filled it with random objets d’art reflecting a Turkish or Middle Eastern theme, rather than the pine paneling and stuffed gamefish typical of supper clubs.

An original sign from Hayward was salvaged.
An original sign from Hayward was salvaged.

Turk’s Inn remained a regional oddity, mainly attracting curious vacationers, until it shuttered in 2014. But the corpse wasn’t quite dead. Restaurateurs Varun Kataria and Tyler Erickson decided to reconstruct the place in Bushwick, and set about acquiring at least some of the original furnishings.

The Wisconsin Supper Club Explained

As a person who loves the old style of Wisconsin supper clubs and has visited many of those remaining, Turk’s Inn doesn’t fill the bill. They became a pre-eminent feature of Wisconsin dining during Prohibition, starting out as speakeasies and cultivating an anonymous, low-to-the-ground vibe — though eventually acting as important social spaces after Prohibition, too.

The focus of these establishments, which sometimes looked like big cabins by the roadside, was a bar, where the primary drink was the old fashioned, with a choice of sometimes wacky garnishes like celery sticks and brussels sprouts stuck on toothpicks. Your meal began with a few drinks at the bar, then progressed to an adjacent dining room with a platter of crudité and dips. Main courses were usually steak or freshwater fish, locally sourced and plainly prepared.

A cat presides over a gilt banquette.
A cat presides over a gilt banquette.
Hopefully, the peacocks won’t poop on the bartenders.
Hopefully, the peacocks won’t poop on the bartenders.

Turk’s Inn is not the first attempt to recreate a Wisconsin supper club in New York City. Wisconsinite Michael White professed to be doing so with his Butterfly in 2012, but there were enough actual expats from that state to quickly call his bluff.

People expecting a classic Wisconsin supper club will find Turk’s Inn to be a failure in many regards. One is the menu, which is vaguely Middle Eastern with cooking school flourishes. Another is the décor, which consists of hundreds of items, some from the original restaurant and others not. These run to busts of Nefertiti, paintings of cats and mosques, sculptures of Graeco-Roman wrestlers, colorful vases and urns, musical instruments, woodland landscapes, commemorative plates from Midwestern states, and a row of golden tassels. These decorations are distracting and headache-inducing if eating is what you’ve come to do.

Made for Instagram

While the staff acts enthusiastic, yammering away at length about favorite dishes (via chef Alberto Carballo), they seem to know this is a restaurant built for Instagram first and good dining second; one of the owners has admitted that the space is built for social media shares. And indeed, to eat there is to be surrounded by people snapping selfies. Turk’s Inn is like an acid flashback to the movie Casablanca, fezzes and all. You are encouraged to accept your role as an extra with grace.

Drink wise, an old fashioned is your best bet.
Drink wise, an old fashioned is your best bet.
A porgy and carrots set you back $38.
A porgy and carrots set you back $38.

That said, you won’t be surprised to find the cocktail menu is the best part, with a collection of nicely balanced martinis and an old fashioned ($12) way stronger and fussier than the ones served in Wisconsin but probably all the better for it. But you don’t get to pick the garnish like at a classic supper club, which is an Instagram fail. The menu is divided into eight sections, with dishes more often in a snacking rather than a meal-making vein.

Some of the food I’d even order again. Best of the things a friend and I tried on a first visit was a whole grilled porgy ($27), which is one dish that seems supper-clubby. It was heaped with curled scallions and sided with a beurre blanc flavored with saffron and raki. Also excellent was a spice-dusted root vegetable slaw ($13) studded with pistachios. The dessert, too, was exceptional, a baked Alaska ($11) formed like a volcano, with cake crumbs strewn around like volcanic ash.

We had a choice of moussaka, meat balls, or mussels in a slender menu section entitled Specialties of the House. We picked the moussaka ($18), which was not very Turkish and more like lasagna. The serving was flattened and tasted reheated. The three kebabs ($8 to $9) we ordered from a choice of six were also mildly disappointing. The beef heart consisted of tiny, dried-out cubes; the lamb rib cooked too long and burned; the octopus nicely done, but with too little sea creature and too much potato.

A colorful red salad made of root vegetables, cut into slithers, on top of a polka dotted plate
A moussaka in a pool of red sauce
A baked Alaska here looks like a volcano, with a point top and cake crumbs strewn around it

Root vegetable slaw, moussaka, baked “Turkish coffee” Alaska

The dish I liked the least was an appetizer called cheese cloud ($10), featuring some really tasty pita chips but with a white dip that had the texture of melting ice cream — with nothing cloud-like about it. The Moroccan carrots we ordered as a side to the porgy were excellent, and would have made a better app than the cheese cloud. But Morocco is “quite aways” from Turkey, as we say in Wisconsin. Clearly, making the food Turkish is the restaurant’s lowest priority. If I were Turkish, I’d probably feel insulted.

Doner kebab stand next door

Doner kebabs served in an actual Turkish pide bread — though curiously not on the Turk’s Inn menu — are found at a lively, adjacent pink carryout window. A chicken and a beef/lamb amalgam twirl on twin vertical spits, and vegetarians and vegans may also choose haloumi cheese and seitan. The chicken ($11) is good, cut right from the cylinder as the sandwich is made.

Unfortunately, the amalgam of two red meats ($12) is terrible. It’s a dodge found in many of the burgeoning number of shawarma, gyro, and doner stands around the city, and doesn’t taste like either beef or lamb. Truthfully, it doesn’t even taste like meat. Neither of these sandwiches has enough meat or poultry in them, so they tend to be loaded down with vegetable matter and red and white sauces.

You can remedy this problem by adding extra meat for $3 or $4, but by that point, the sandwich plus tax is nearing $20. Maybe settle for the french fries, doused with both sauces ($6.50), filling and delicious.

The doner stand next door is the most Turkish thing about Turk’s Inn.
The doner stand next door is the most Turkish thing about Turk’s Inn.

The Turk’s Inn

234 Starr St, New York, NY 11237
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