Mesut Ozil arrived at Arsenal in 2013 knowing few people other than his German compatriots Lukas Podolski, Per Mertesacker and Serge Gnabry. He quickly looked towards home comforts and found Likya, a family-run Turkish restaurant at the heart of north London’s Jewish community in Golders Green.
Ozil is born to Turkish immigrant parents and has struck up a close friendship with Hasan Dolanbay, co-owner of Likya, and it has remained a favourite haunt of Arsenal’s mercurial No.10.
The midfielder’s impact at Arsenal on and off the pitch is fuelled by a number of factors, but nutrition remains a key aspect of his pre-match preparation and post-match recovery. Hasan’s restaurant, which he and his sister opened 16 years ago, is central to that.
“From the beginning Mesut came with his girlfriend at the time,” the chef said. “He didn’t know who I was but of course I knew him.
“I said I could recommend him something or he could choose something on the menu, he said ‘no problem we will choose something’ and after a while we bonded and became friends I gave him my card and told him if needs any help because he doesn’t know any Turkish people.
Every week he came here after finishing his training – he spent a lot of his spare time in the restaurant. He loved being here because he didn’t know anyone else.”
As a professional footballer, getting privacy in London is far from easy. That applies ten-fold for a player of Ozil’s quality and Hasan insists that he turns away selfie-hunters who come to the restaurant with that sole intention.
“He gets privacy here and it feels like a home for him,” he said. “I never asked a favour for him. I say no to people who come to the restaurant and ask for pictures.
“He’s very shy if he doesn’t know someone well. He likes everything – especially Turkish breakfast. His origin is Turkish and we try and cook everything how a Turkish mother would cook. Egg, sausage, borek – he loves this kind of stuff.
“He never eats anything heavy before a game, he knows his limits. He loves Turkish food and this is his favourite Turkish restaurant. He always speaks Turkish to us.
“Not many people know how intelligent he is and he can speak several languages including Turkish, English, German and Spanish. He’s a traditional man who can have food anywhere in the city but he’s most comfortable here and enjoys it more here.
The popularity of Likya, which prides itself on being ‘the taste of Anatolia’, has rocketed in recent years after Hasan changed the approach
“It was just fish and chips at the start but one day we sat down and realised there was a gap in the market – people love Turkish food,” Hasan added.
“We decided to decorate the restaurant, improve the menus and do something that nobody had done at that point in London. Fifty-to-sixty per cent of our customers are Jewish as we’re at the heart of the community – they love our food because it’s similar to Jewish cuisine.”
Ozil’s love of Likya has led to it becoming a regular haunt for not just his Arsenal team-mates, but some of the top football figures from across London and the world.
“Hector Bellerin comes in. [Granit] Xhaka and [Shkodran] Mustafi as well,” Hasan said. “Tottenham, Watford and Chelsea players come in – Mousa Dembele most recently. Pep Guardiola’s brother has dined here too, and [Germany coach] Joachim Low has met with Mesut here before.
“When I saw Mesut came here everyone was so excited. He’s a really good person.”
During a ‘Twitter takeover’ on Arsenal’s official account at the end of 2016, Ozil answered questions from fans which included ‘what is your favourite restaurant?’. His reply undoubtedly put Likya on the map for supporters across the world and Dolanbay remains eternally grateful for the humble gesture.