Natalie Isikli: Artist and restaurateur blends love and unity

Natalie Isikli
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

Natalie Isikli has a deep affection for Sahara restaurant, and it’s not just because it’s a place where people from all over the world come together, or because, as she likes to say, “It is the mother of all Turkish restaurants in New York City.” It’s because she’s become a part of the Sahara family.

Since 1996 Isikli has been the Gravesend restaurant’s graphic designer and web guru, and in 1997 she married John Isikli, who owns the dining establishment with his mother Sahinda.

“His family welcomed me with open arms to the operation,” she says.

Isikli was given freedom to apply her skills as an artist and graphic designer to enhance the haven of Turkish cuisine, and she gave the place an online presence long before it was commonplace. But more than that, Isikli and husband began to develop a vision for the place, building on the ideas of his late father, Yaaya, who opened the restaurant in 1986. As she sees it, Sahara serves Turkish food, but “it has a Mediterranean-getaway atmosphere, where anyone can feel comfortable and at home,” adding, “That was Yaaya’s vision originally.”

When she came on board, Sahara was a small place, but in the years since then it has grown by leaps and bounds, and expanded many times over. Isikli, who studied graphic art, psychology and web design at the School of Visual Art and Long Island University, has left her mark on the colorful, inviting rooms, which are adorned with many of her own artworks. Between this and her shaping of marketing materials and bringing online-ordering to eager customers, it’s evident that Isikli has done a great deal to help in Sahara’s continued success.

Limor Ziarno, a friend and herself a 2015 Women of Distinction, is amazed by what Isikli has done for Sahara.

“Natalie brought Sahara into the modern age,” Ziarno says.

Isikli remains modest about her contributions, preferring to emphasize the work of others, like Sahinda, who is on-site daily.

“She is a woman of distinction,” Isikli asserts.

Her work anchored in respect for the legacy of the renowned eatery.

“It’s very important for me to maintain the art and the image, and the legend that Yaaya created,” she says.

Art is the spice that lifts the spiritual palate, Isikli claims.

“My art is created with a strong sense of love and unity,” she says. “I’ve always believed that everyone is a treasure and everyone is a creative soul.”

Isikli finds that much of her work at the restaurant these days is maintenance, which leaves her more time for her own art.

“I’m ready to work on my own self expression and empowerment as an artist,” she says.

The Woman of Distinction has begun holding art workshops for women so they can empower and express themselves.

“It is a beautiful program for women, who I believe are the real super-power of the world,” Isikli claims.


OCCUPATION: Graphic, web designer, and spiritual artist.

COMPANY: Sahara; yungadesign.com.

CLAIM TO FAME: “Empowering women and creating new possibilities for the creativity that exists within us all.”


WOMAN I ADMIRE: “Audrey Hepburn, who said, ‘Nothing is impossible — the word itself says I’m possible!’ ”

MOTTO: “I believe creativity is within us all, and a natural way for connectedness, empowerment, awareness and self-expression.”

More from Around New York