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Reinventing a Cult London Restaurant in the Middle of a Pandemic

During lockdown in April 2020, Ferhat and Sertaç Dirik transformed the iconic Turkish restaurant their father opened in 1994

Under the joint stewardship of brothers Ferhat and Sertaç Dirik, Mangal 2 — one of east London’s most renowned and cult-followed Turkish ocakbaşi — reinvented itself during lockdown last spring.

Mangal 2 first opened in 1994, itself an evolution of Mangal 1, the first Turkish charcoal grill of its kind in London, which the brothers’ father Ali Dirik opened in 1991 having moved to London from Istanbul.

Ali’s time at the restaurant has passed. When Mangal 2 2.0 reopened this summer, it did so while preserving its 25-year-old core, but it was still a restaurant fundamentally changed: adapted to the wonts of London in 2020 and as crisis-proof as possible in the middle of a global pandemic, with subsequent lockdowns a plausible (and realised) reality.

It’s now what the brothers call “a casual dining experience that’s complemented with a concise menu [...] spacious seating in a more detail-focused atmosphere [...] pairing the modern dining experience with a refined and exceptional Anatolian menu.”

That menu, much shortened and overseen by Sertaç, who returned to London from Copenhagen early last year, has retained its roster of grilled chicken and Adana kebabs, grilled onion and pomegranate salads, and falafel, but introduced the likes of sourdough pide, fried chicken livers with feta slaw, bean fasuliye with samphire, and purple basil rice pudding. A BYO policy has been replaced by a drinks list that features natural wines and local beers on draught.

The brothers have seen their decision vindicated: the new, reinvented Mangal 2 was one of last year’s most hyped reopenings. While it did not jettison its roots among the area’s Turkish ocakbaşi, it did cast off expectations that prices, dishes, and decor would never change — expectations not of their choosing, which they believed was holding them and the restaurant back. The Dirik brothers spent 2020 adapting to what Mangal 2 and its real Dalston community needed and wanted.

The co-owner of an Eater London 38 mainstay, which over the years has been as famous for its Twitter account as its çöp şiş, Ferhat Dirik — optimistic, funny, and characteristically scathing — told Eater about the changes he and his brother had made, why they had, and the predicament Mangal 2 faces at the start of 2021.

Chefs work in an open kitchen.
Sertaç Dirik, right, at Mangal 2, east London
Michaël Protin

Having operated and changed the restaurant through lockdown 1, tiered restrictions and now a new national approach, Eater began by asking: was there a big or any difference between tier 4 or national lockdown for your Mangal 2?

“The main one is not being able to sell beers to go to takeaway customers, which is a real unnecessary shame. People liked to grab a mackerel pide sandwich with a pint of Partizan IPA to go, and that’s another simple pleasure the government has stripped away from the public.”

How do you expect this will affect both your business, generally? And the size of your staff? With fewer customers on the streets, do you expect to have to reduce the team?

“Without any grants, we’re practically finished. Furlough is all well and good but you still pay PAYE tax on employees. You still pay your rent and direct debit for gas and electricity. There’s water bills. There’s overheads and you’re taking in less than a quarter of your usual revenue. A recipe for disaster.

“Unfortunately, this is the reality whereby we will have to reduce the number staff and also the shifts offered to existing staff. There are no winners and we have to find a means of survival.”

How have restrictions since before Christmas affected the business so far — what does such reduced trade mean in real terms? In addition to the inability to pay full rent, have you reduced salaries; cut the staff?

“We hadn’t had to reduce staff numbers until now. Losing Xmas trade was awful, but we understand why tier 4 was introduced. I just wish [the government] didn’t rush reopening things after the second lockdown.”

Mangal 2 ocakbasi in Dalston, one of east London’s best and most famous Turkish restaurants

How long are you now planning for the dining room to be closed? And how much longer can you afford to stay closed?

“I anticipate this lockdown to last until at least March. We will keep pushing to make takeaways of the highest standards to ensure we can keep operating until restaurants reopen.”

Mangal 2 in Dalston on the eve of lockdown 2 in November 2020
Mangal 2, on the eve of lockdown 2 in November 2020
Michaël Protin/Eater London

What have you got planned for takeaway / delivery in the coming weeks?

“We have all of our usual menu, plus exceptional mackerel pide sandwiches; döner pide sandwiches; plus a few new dishes in the pipeline to keep customers coming back. We operate Monday to Sunday 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and have delivery options too via Slerp and Big Night App.”

If you are tweaking your offering for lockdown 3, is that based on lessons learned during both lockdowns — which themselves seemed quite different — last year?

“We closed all Lockdown 1 (which is when my brother and I spent everyday here rebuilding and remaking Mangal 2). We closed all Lockdown 2 because we wanted to let the restaurant breathe a bit and to recharge after a crazy amount of hype and interest when we were open. So this Lockdown, we want to make the best takeaway available in London and keep working. Enough rest and closures; we miss being active.”

Mangal 2 on a dank Tuesday evening, early January 2021
Mangal 2 on a dank Tuesday evening, early January 2021
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Do you stand to receive any monies in this latest round of grants from the government? If so, will it help? If not, what makes you ineligible?

“We applied for a £3,000 grant for Lockdown 2 via the delightful Hackney Council. This was over six weeks ago. Still no reply. Great show of loyalty after being a 26 year business, which has helped enrich the borough.

“All grants help and ensure our survival. It’s reinvested back into the business, allowing us to pay debts and keep our heads above water.”

Ocakbasi and mezze at Mangal 2, the Turkish restaurant in Dalston that that forms part of the best 24 hour restaurant travel itinerary for London — where to eat with one day in the city
A spread at Mangal 2, photographed in 2017
Ola Smit/Eater London

Appreciate this might be a hard question to answer, but what needs to happen between now and March for you to make it to spring? It seems like there’s very little room for much more to go wrong, unless the government really digs deep into its pockets?

“We would need to be very busy selling takeaways, but that alone won’t be enough. We will need government grants, like the £9,000 mentioned. This would allow us to pay rent, pay PAYE on staff wages, pay utilities, and survive. Anything beyond April and even this grant won’t save us.”

Brothers Sertaç and Ferhat Dirik, owners of Mangal 2 outside the restaurant in Dalston
Brothers Sertaç and Ferhat Dirik, owners of Mangal 2
Mangal 2 [Official Photo]

Maybe a better way of asking this question is: what’s the most important thing that needs to happen between now and the spring in order to give restaurants the best chance of surviving?

“Grants, grants, and more grants. If the Tories have money for Trident’s nuclear weapons development over imaginary proxy wars which could end all humanity, they should be able to help the tax-paying hospitality industry to survive.”

It’s odd to think about anything other than the pandemic right now, but the effects of Brexit are presumably going to dawn on the restaurant industry come the summer. Do you fear that if you make it through the pandemic, you’re suddenly going to find yourself staring another monumental obstacle right in the face?

“I think Brexit is very detrimental to the hospitality industry and British civilisation as a whole. I do suspect that more British people, uni graduates too, will become more open to working service industry jobs as respective job markets suffer an economic collapse due to the horrors of leaving the EU. So there’s the smallest amount of hope, too, I guess.

“With regards to survival and challenges, Mangal 2’s resolve is huge, and we always scrape through a way to make it. And we will continue to think on our feet and to also be industrious and forward-thinking to maintain our livelihoods.”

A customer in a mask enters Mangal 2 on the day it reopened after the second coronavirus lockdown in London, December 2020
A customer enters Mangal 2 on the day it reopened after lockdown 2 in December 2020
Michaël Protin/Eater London

Lastly, it seems that you and your brother’s evolution of Mangal 2 has been a huge success? Tell me what the big differences have been in terms of attitude and profile of customer. Response to the food, too. And also, why you decided to do it, when you did? Do you think you would have done this were it not for the pandemic?

“I can’t lie, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and incredibly humbling to witness. People seem to genuinely root for us to do well. That’s rare in the cut-throat world of the restaurants. We’re trying to bring Turkish dishes with enhanced flavour combinations, whilst making the best kebabs around in the UK. That coupled with very good and reasonably priced natural wines, the best draught beers in London, and a great, small team of good people. That’s our winning combination.

“We went for this route because the old way wasn’t working. It was working for customers who wanted to fill their bellies at £15 a head, but it wasn’t working for us as a family.

“My brother and I had nothing to lose. Things were already taking a downward turn during Lockdown 1, so we thought ‘fuck it,’ if we’re gonna go bankrupt and burn Mangal 2 to the ground, we may as well do it serving food and drink we love. So that’s what we did. We got rid of most of the menu. Got rid of BYOB. Added new dishes and kept the classics. People seemed to really identify with the changes and we felt vindicated.

“Without the pandemic, my brother would probably have remained in Copenhagen working in restaurants, and I would have continued running Mangal 2 in a way that gave my little joy. Now, we’re both pretty happy, especially every time we’re allowed to run a real restaurant.”

As for its two most famous customers, the Turner Prize-winning artists Gilbert and George, who dined at the restaurant (and ate the same thing) almost every day for two decades, what did they make of the evolution of Mangal 2?

“[They] stopped coming early 2020. They haven’t been in once since the pandemic. I rang them once in March to check in on them, wondering if anything had happened? And they told me they were fine! To be honest, it’s no water off our back. They would have hated all the changes, anyway, and we can’t just cater for two people when there’s a whole city to feed.”