Budapest - On the menu in Budapest
Written by Carolyn Bánfalvi Photography by George Konkoly-Thege
The Danube running through the centre of Budapest, connecting Buda and Pest, is the city’s defining physical feature. But, really, it is the food that connects Hungarians. Hungarians love to eat, and Budapest is a great – albeit little-known – city for food.
Upon arriving in Budapest, it might not be immediately apparent how important eating and drinking are here. There will be lots of distractions: making sense of the language, the energy of the city, and the grandiose Parliament building, which seems much too large for this country of under 10 million. The stunning Danube banks and Castle above are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and are especially pretty at night when the Chain Bridge is lit up. Though much of the architecture may be in need of a good cleaning and painting, be prepared to wander the streets looking up so as not to miss out on anything.
All of that wandering will make you hungry and thirsty, and this is when you discover a well-kept secret: Budapest is a great city for eating and drinking. Hungarian cuisine is varied, and one of the most under-appreciated and unknown in Europe. Goulash (called gulyás in Hungarian; a paprika-spiced soup with beef and potatoes) is one of the few widely known (though often misinterpreted) Hungarian dishes; but the list of options is endless. Rustic soups (such as the paprika-tinted fisherman’s soup) and stews (pörkölt), made from a variety of different meats, are commonplace, while traditional meals are heavy on meat, potatoes, and pickled vegetables. Though pork is an important ingredient in Hungarian cookery, it’s possible to enjoy Hungarian cuisine without it. Traditional cooking still reigns, but dining out is becoming more exciting with an increasing number of bistros aiming to put a modern spin on the Hungarian classics. In 2010 a Budapest restaurant was awarded the country’s first Michelin star, and Nobu Budapest has opened, bringing glamorous opening parties and celebrity sightings. Thanks to the weak forint, value abounds.
Budapest is famous for its grand old coffee houses, and as in other Central European cities, they defined social life from the end of the 19th century until the Second World War. When Communism arrived in Hungary, many of these ornate coffee houses, full of marble columns and gold gilt, fell into disrepair, and the spaces were used for things such as department stores or youth centres. Elegant coffee houses like New York Café (which was restored and modernised four years ago, and is now part of the Boscolo Hotel), were where books were written, plays penned, and literary journals edited. Another, Centrál Kávéház (which just underwent a makeover and a change of management), also played a strong role in Hungary’s literary history. These days it still serves coffee and tasty pastries on small silver trays. Hungarian sweets are famously beautiful (think Austrian-style layer cakes), and coffee houses such as centrally located Gerbeaud (opened in 1858 by a Swiss pastry chef), Ruszwurm Cukrászda (founded in 1827 in the Castle), and Auguszt Cukrászda (a family-run group of three cafés, established in 1870) are some of the finest places to sample them. While writers these days don’t gather in coffee houses as they used to, the modern-day café scene in Budapest is as lively as ever, and they still serve as meeting places where customers can linger all day over an espresso.
Traditional cooking still rules, and any exploration of Hungarian cuisine should include an ultra-traditional restaurant. At Bagolyvár Étterem, located in Városliget, one of the city’s largest parks (which also holds the Széchenyi Bath House), the dining room is full of folksy decor and the staff is entirely female. Come here to try staples like chicken paprikás, roasted goose with red cabbage, and chestnut purée for dessert. Kéhli Vendégl? is across the river in Óbuda, and famous for its beef bone marrow appetiser (served with toast and garlic) and frequent live gypsy music. Start with a bowl of warming pheasant soup, sample the beef stew with potato dumplings and sheep cheese, and finish with the classic flaming Gundel palacsinta (thin pancakes with walnuts and chocolate sauce).
While many of Budapest’s restaurants wouldn’t think of changing a thing, over the past few years creative chefs have been serving deliciously executed modern takes on Hungarian classics and flavours. Borssó Bistro has the feel of a Parisian bistro, with brass chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows. You may be familiar with some of the Hungarian dishes on the menu, but chances are you’ve never had them quite like chefs here make them. Centrál Kávéház has benefited from a recent menu overhaul, lightening the heaviness of the Hungarian dishes on offer. The place has been gorgeously renovated, keeping all of the historic details such as the tiny flowers painted on the ceilings and ornate stucco work.
Bock Bisztró serves innovative Hungarian cuisine, often with a Mediterranean touch. There’s a charcuterie counter at the front and a lengthy wine list (the owner is winemaker József Bock, from the red wine producing region of Villány). Magyar 21 Étterem, in the Castle District, focuses on all things Hungarian, from homemade fruit syrups with soda water and spirits like Unicum and pálinka, to ingredients such as crayfish, which are no longer common, but once abundant in the country’s rivers. The décor is sleek, but the dishes, such as veal stew with tarhonya (pinched pasta) and mákosguba (bread pudding with poppy seed sauce), are authentically Hungarian.
At Csalogány 26, the extraordinarily minimalist décor doesn’t reflect the talent in the kitchen (which you can watch live on TV in the dining room). Although they are known for their bargain lunch special, come to dinner for the more sophisticated (and always seasonal) dishes. Café Kör, a bistro located near St. Stephen’s Basilica, is a long-time fixture on the Budapest dining scene, specialising in Hungarian cuisine prepared with a lighter touch. Be sure to check the hand-scrawled daily specials (and bring cash; credit cards are not accepted). Though it is not Hungarian, head to Costes for Budapest’s most elegant dining experience. The country’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, the menu is more French/international, the chef is Portuguese, the tasting menus are divine, and the service literally comes with white gloves.
Little of the best Hungarian wine ends up outside the country, and Hungary produces some amazing wines, from great sparkling wines to Bordeaux-style reds. And of course, there are the thick and golden sweet wines from Tokaj (the most expensive in Hungary), which wine connoisseurs all over the world venerate. Winemaking in Hungary is diverse, and wine lovers will enjoy discovering fine wines made in tiny quantities by unknown winemakers. Go to the Drop Shop, Budapest’s premier wine bar, to taste wine from around the country and the world. The knowledgeable staff can answer all the questions you throw at them. It’s unlikely that you’ll find many of the wines you discover at home, so stock your suitcases with bottles from Bortársaság.
Get an even closer look at the culture of Hungarian food by visiting one of the market halls. The Central Market Hall, a grand late-18th-century structure, is one of Europe’s finest. It is three levels of butchers, greengrocers, pickle stalls, bakeries, snack bars, cheesemongers, and shops. Here, in this temple of food, Hungarian ingredients in their simplest form – knobbly parsnips, misshapen carrots, and abundant peppers – take centre stage. Chefs from nearby restaurants rub elbows with grandmothers. Here, more than anywhere else, it becomes clear just how important food is in Hungary.
At the market the stacks of bacon and hanging sausages make it obvious that pork is an important ingredient in Hungarian cooking. It is entirely possible to avoid pork while dining out. But many dishes will also contain pork fat or bacon, so menu descriptions don’t tell the whole story. Be sure to make it clear to your waiter that you don’t eat pork (sertés) or dishes cooked with bacon (szalonna).
Sweet street treats
Kürtoskalács, also known as chimney or stove cake, is Hungary’s oldest cake. Long thin strips of dough are wrapped around a metal spit, glazed with sugar, and rotated until the sugar has caramelized.
Beigli is an authentic Hungarian pastry roll that is often made at Easter and Christmas. It is sweet and has many varieties of fillings, the most common of which is poppy seeds and walnuts.
Hungarian Food Guides
Carolyn Bánfalvi is the author of the authoritative guidebooks on eating and drinking: Hungary: Food Wine Budapest (Little Bookroom) and The Food and Wine Lover’s Guide to Hungary: With Budapest Restaurants and Trips to the Wine Country (Park Kiadó). The books, essential reading for any food or wine lover visiting Hungary, cover Hungarian cuisine, the history and culture of Hungarian food, the emerging wine scene, restaurant and café recommendations, shop and market listings, and more. Through her boutique culinary tour company, Bánfalvi organises food, wine, and market tours throughout the country.