Inside his kebab shack on Baggot Street, Ismael Yildiz shaves slices off the thick, juicy log of rotating meat.
It’s 8:45 pm on a Monday evening. The last few office workers leave for home and tourists amble past the pubs. Next door, young lads descend the stairs of underground bar Xico. It’s chilly out this evening, but not inside the stand.
“Yes, sir?” says a smiling Yildiz, as a customer in cycling gear approaches. “Doner kebab, please,” says the man, counting coins on the counter top.
Yildiz, blue-eyed with wisps of grey hair, shuffles the length of the frowsty shack to prepare the meal. After nearly 40 years of the same, he has it down pat.
The neon light affixed to the side of the shack declares “OPEN” in bright red letters, as Yildiz drops the man’s change into the cash register.
Down the shack’s adjacent laneway, a chef from one of the nearby restaurants cranks open the back door and fires up a cigarette. Half a dozen large, metal bins sit nearby.
“Nobody knew what kebabs were when we opened here,” Yildiz says proudly, picking up a bag of frozen chips. “That was a long time ago now.”
It was 1980 to be precise. Yildiz had trained in the Turkish army, before departing for Europe in 1976. He worked a stint in kebab houses in London, and then moved again, this time to Dublin. It’s quiet this evening. Yildiz shaves more slices to keep the spinning kebab fresh, wipes down the counters and peers out at the street.
It’s the weekenders that his particular fare appeals to. “It’s mostly young people. The young come Saturday,” says Yildiz. “The elderly people come out on Friday night.”
A young couple, dressed in raincoats, approaches the small window out of which Yildiz pops his head. He takes their order and they wait patiently.
Located opposite Doheny & Nesbitt, Ismael’s is affixed to the building beside it. It appears, with its cracking white paint and red “FAST FOOD” signs, as if a ready-made box, tacked on haphazardly to the laneway it spills onto.
For the drunken grease-seeker, it’s popular post-pub and pre-club. Yildiz, burly in frame, often acts as the Baggot Street peacekeeper.
“Sometimes, people get into fight. Happened once or twice,” says Yildiz, flipping chips every couple of minutes. “Young guy it was once. Others were hitting him and smashing his head off the concrete. So I go help him and shout at them, ‘Get out of here!’”
Yildiz laughs, and begins to show me his menu, displayed in candy-stripe colours behind his head. It’s minimal: doner kebaps, a hot dog special, garlic chips, minerals.
Kebap, says Yildiz emphatically, is the correct spelling. “Abrakebabra spelt it wrong!,” he says. “They said to me, ‘No, you’re wrong Ismael’ so I said to them, ‘No, I’m right!’”
More people spill out of the nearby Toners pub, as Yildiz settles in for the night.
He opens each evening at around 8 pm, driving to and from County Offaly to unlock his shack. It’s no life for the old though, he says, working often as he does until 4 am.
Waiting For Home
When the going was good, Yildiz considered another premises, a restaurant serving proper Turkish food even. Age and the recession took their toll, though.
“The recession was bad. We had Abrakebabra across the road,” he says. “Then we’d a Burger King. But they all gone now.”
Ismael’s managed to survive, though, owing in part to Yildiz’s ownership of his rectangular prefab.
He has Jahmal and Bríd, part-timers, who help him out. But flying solo for 36 years has made him stubborn. “I don’t trust other people to do the work,” says Yildiz, tinkering with switches. He potters around inside, awaits the next customer.
Amid the clamour of Doheny & Nesbitt, O’Donoghue’s, Toners and the slick bars and restaurants of Baggot Street, Ismael’s seems entirely out of place. Like part of a movie set, its garish lights clash with the Georgian facades surrounding it.
Each year, Yildiz leaves Dublin and returns to Turkey for one month. “You get tired, know what I mean?” he says. “When I go on holiday I relax. Hopefully someone will take over but I don’t have much hope. They don’t have the clue.”
“They” are Yildiz’s two sons. Both in secondary school back home in Turkey, they live with their older sister and mother.
He smiles when he talks about his summer “Asia” trip. “That’s why I go back there,” he says. “The memories. I will go back there.”
When he’s here, he doesn’t have much spare time and doesn’t do much to fill it, he says. “To be honest, I don’t have much day here,” he says. “I’m getting old as well. I used to go out, talk to people. These days, nothing.”
“You’re too tired, driving in and out every day, wanting, waiting to go home,” says Yildiz. “A lot of work. Put it this way – whoever gets this place, if they don’t know how to deal with the business it will be gone in a year or two.”
Steam pours out of the laneway’s vents. It’s approaching 10 pm as another customer rolls up and orders a bag of chips.
Inside, the 63-year-old Yildiz gets to work again. He chats with his customer briefly, both exchanging pleasantries, discussing the day’s trials and tribulations.
The customer pays and walks off. From a distance, he calls back to Yildiz inside. “Tomorrow,” he shouts. “We start again!”