At Gyros and Tzatziki, Kurdish restaurateur mixes innovation, ancient recipes


Nov. 1, 2022, is a day that Cem Bulutoglu remembers fondly. It was then that he received the keys for his new restaurant on 24th Street, a milestone that marked the end of decades spent overseeing the kitchens of others.

Gyros and Tzatziki, a Mediterranean restaurant bathed in deep blues, is the culmination of a journey that began in Istanbul and persists in the Mission. When Bulutoglu opened the doors to his restaurant at 3111 24th St., he envisioned a culinary adventure geared toward experimentation and innovation. 

“If someone comes to your restaurant five or six times, you have to give them something different,” said Bulutoglu. He believes that the culinary world is not too different from the tech industry, and should embrace its ethos of innovation. 

So, at his place, baklava became “choclava,” a Nutella-driven spin on the beloved dessert. And, inspired by falafel and other grain-based dishes, he created the zucchini cake, crispy vegan fare — rare among the traditionally meat- and dairy-based meals of Mediterranean cuisine.

Bulutoglu, now 40, is no stranger to change. In 2000, when he was 18, he left Istanbul for America.

As a Kurd, life in Turkey was oppressive and, at times, unforgiving; the indigenous population is confined by a strict set of rules that restricts them from speaking their own language or celebrating their distinct heritage.

Still, it was hard being away from home, and food helped bridge that loss. Soon after immigrating, Bulutoglu began working at Gyros Gyros in Palo Alto. “I grew up with food like this,” he said, gesturing to the kebab and lamb shank piled over steaming rice. “This food is in my roots.” 

The lamb shank at Gyros and Tzatziki, Bulutoglu’s favorite, is braised for six hours before serving. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023.

Bulutoglu continued to immerse himself in the culinary world, noting over time how it could improve upon itself. He moved onto Gyro Xpress on 18th and Castro, working there for a while before deciding he wanted to branch out and make his own mark. 

“I love this city, I love this atmosphere, and I love the people,” said Bulutoglu, welcoming a customer. The two exchanged greetings as though they were family. 

When Bulutoglu opened Gyros and Tzatziki in December 2022, he started small. A simple menu, a small group of staff. He began to experiment, bringing in multiple chefs and encouraging collaboration between them. 

“I don’t want to just be ‘the boss,’” he explained. “Sometimes, my employees know better than me. I run my ideas through them first, because they are here more than you and me.” That led to the addition of choclava and zucchini cake.

‘Choclava,’ a Nutella-infused take on baklava, is one of the experimental dishes at Gyros and Tzatziki. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023.

Bulutoglu also finds inspiration in the past. After researching ancient culinary traditions, he created a stuffed-mussel dish reminiscent of those once offered at street booths in Constantinople, centuries ago. 

He plans to showcase the meal on August 11, when he will also begin experimenting with live music at the restaurant. 

Stuffed mussels, which will be featured at the restaurant on August 11, are a callback to the ancient cuisine of Constantinople. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023.

Bulutoglu is constantly thinking of new ways to improve his restaurant. “This is the toughest business. If you know what you’re doing, and you’re tough, you will make it,” he said, pausing to take a sip from a delicate cup that steamed with Kurdish coffee. 

Again, he relates success to following the rule of innovation. 

“Every year, Apple releases new laptops, new phones, new iPads,” Bulutoglu said. “I view restaurants the same way. You have to keep up. You have to know your competition, and what it takes to do better than them.”

However motivated by his competitors, Bulutoglu attributes his drive to a far deeper purpose. He says that his wife and three children constantly remind him of his dreams, as well as how those dreams led him here to the Mission. 

“I want to give them a financially safe and easy life. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to take care of them,” he said. Bulutoglu adds that his children, Robîn, Roni and Havin, all have Kurdish names. 

While this fact may seem trivial, it is a privilege for many Kurds: In the majority of countries in the Middle East, Kurds are strongly discouraged, and even legally banned, from naming their children in their mother tongue.

Bulutoglu makes sure to express that freedom in his restaurant. Beside where he sits, a framed poster of Kemal Sunal hangs on the wall. “He is a very popular comedian in Turkey,” Bulutoglu said, gesturing to the painting. “But he could never publicly acknowledge the fact that he was Kurdish. I can do that here.”

Hanging in Gyros and Tzatziki is the portrait of Kemal Sunal, a Kurdish comedian that Bulutoglu admires. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023.

Bulutoglu also owns Gyro King, a restaurant on Grove Street that he shares with two business partners. But he now spends most of his time at Gyros and Tzatziki.

“If you asked me where I want to be in five years, I want to be here, seeing my restaurant packed with people at every table,” he said as he leaned back, his hands sweeping towards the playful art pieces that coat the walls. And he’s there late — his restaurant is open until midnight on weekdays, and until 2 a.m. on weekends.

“I’m not gonna fail here.”

  • Paintings, sculptures and books dot the walls and shelves of Bulutoglu's restaurant.Paintings, sculptures and books dot the walls and shelves of Bulutoglu’s restaurant. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023
  • A painting titled “Gyro Escobar” hangs in the restaurant. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023
  • A miniature house model and other pieces decorate the restaurant.A miniature house model and other pieces decorate the restaurant. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023
  • Artwork is displayed at Gyros and Tzatziki. Artwork is displayed at Gyros and Tzatziki. Photo by Gilare Zada. August 2023