cheap eats


Let’s be candid:.  Many visitors to Budapest come because they’ve been told that it’s ... cheap.  Now, to some extent, that’s old advice, aging rapidly, as prices rise to meet both EU-level labor costs and what the market fueled by tourists, expats, and foreign marauders seems able to bear.  For Americans, the plight of the dollar is beginning to make third world snack food seem pricey and Hungarian food seem comparable to home if not London or Paris.  The serious bargain seeker is likely to be better served, if not served better, in, say, Bulgaria (but, of course, then you’d be in, uh, Bulgaria). 

Having said that, there are still at least two ways in which Budapest’s reputation as a cheap date are still relevant.

First, with work, one can still find really, really inexpensive meals and great bargains. 

And, second, without much effort, it’s possible to ‘eat upward’ … that is, to have a far better meal for the money than one could when compared to London or Paris or even recession-bound NY. 

There are lots of places that will put a filling meal in front of a weary traveler for well under 5 Euros, accompanied by an inexpensive half-litre of beer.  And for 35 Euros a person one can have a meal that credibly compete with ones costing twice that in New York or three times that in London or Paris.  With the exception of 4- and 5-Star hotels and other self-consciously upmarket tourist-targeted restaurants, this latter price point characterizes the most expensive of the the places I describe in the Restaurant part of the website.

Nevertheless, a fair number of people show up in Budapest with comparatively little elbowroom in their budgets and/or not much interest in food.  For these folks, value is not the key, low price is.  They’re the ones targeted here.  They have to eat to survive, and if you have very little disposable cash, and food is far from the center of your vacation, you just want a cheap place to eat, ideally with some local atmosphere.  Here are some thoughts:

  1. BulletTourist Menus. To start with, almost every small dive on any of the tourist streets posts a tourist menu or a daily menu (Napi Menu) and these frequently are three courses for very little money indeed.  As always, stick to the menu and the value is real, even if the range of meals offered from place to place tends to be slim (some variant on Chicken Paprikas or Gulyas seems to the common thread); the food is serviceable, but stray from the tourist menu by even a single item and you run the risk of a seriously more expensive meal.

  1. BulletEtkezdek.  Hungarians also search out cheap lunches, perhaps even more avidly than tourists, and the Hungarian word that translates as Cheap Lunch Place is ‘etkezde’.  One in particular, thanks to the Klezmer expat musician Bob Cohen and his serious Budapest dining enthusiasm and outreach, has made its way into several guidebooks and is now a routine stop for tourists who beat a path to off-the-beaten-path venues.  The Kadar Etkezde on Klauzal ter is open Mon-Saturday for lunch and serves a solid range of Hungarian dishes at very low cost and with the kind of populist/socialist gestalt that only adds to its cachet.

There’s a gruff but welcoming quality about the Kadar if you hang in there, more than you can say for most etkezdes (which expect you to read the Hungarian-only menu and identify what you want from an array of dishes seldom seen beyond the borders; even a relatively swift hand on a phrasebook or dictionary will have a hard time putting an order together without 15 minutes squinting at the chalkboard and translating every word; generally speaking, that’s long enough to get those standing around me ticked off at my intrusion, not to mention long enough to have the proprietor come out regularly to erase the very item I had just managed to figure out was to bhe the centerpiece of my lunch … at an etkezde they only make so much of any given dish, and when it runs out it’s summarily wiped off the board). 

They’ll even more or less communicate with you in English at Kadar …though they seem to prefer that you know the routine before you arrive: you enter, get pointed at a table, look over a menu (I think they have an English version even!) and tell one of the surly-but-warm waitstaff what you want; it arrives, you eat, and then you leave (leaving a tip on the table if you wish); as you get to the door you repeat your order to the guy with the adding machine who stands like a displaced commissar beside the exit; he totes it up, smiles, asks how you liked it, and accepts your money.  It's like an etkezde with training wheels, an ideal place to get a feel for how it'sdone.

Here's a map showing Kadar's location ... take the Yellow Metro to Opera (top left) or the 4/6 Tram to Erzsébet körút and Király utca (top right).  Go to the green square (Klauzal ter); it's on the bottom side, between Nyar and Nagy.

That said, the food is good, and cheap, but not as good as other less English-friendly places.  I’ve tried several; many are grimly bad, some just plain blah, but look for the ones with people lined up onto the street doing a heavy take out business.  There’s a place like that on Nagymezo; and there’s Norbi Etkezde (tiny and always crowded; come early for selection and a seat) on Tatra just off the korut near the Margaret Bridge.  (At the extreme bottom right is the Nyugati stop of the Blue Metro; or the 4/6 Tram to the last stop before the Margaret Bridge.)  On this map it's just above the post office (the letter icon in the red box) on Tatra.

  1. BulletThe chicken butcher on Semmelweiss utca.  There’s a butcher shop that only sells poultry and that almost always has a line out onto the street on Semmelweiss utca.  In the far corner, they also sell (sometimes a bit too salty for my tastes) fried chicken Hungarian style.  Cheap and seriously worth the wait.  If you want to splurge and try foie gras only once on your trip, this is a good place to buy a brick of gooseliver, cooked and chilled in a brick of its own fat.  Cheap by foie gras standards, but not cheap…perhaps $15/pound or thereabouts; available Fridays and Saturdays generally. But quite good (slice, free from the fat, add a touch of salt and some raw or fried onions…).  Just above the orange circle on Semmelweiss on the map below.

  1. BulletPalacsintak.  Hungarian for crepes.  There are palacsinta places scattered through the city; one is a block from Szervita ter, is open 24 hours a day, and has a branch in Buda as well (also open non-stop) just by the Metro station.  Both function as Internet café’s as well.  The food is cheap, the range of fillings – both savory and sweet -- extensive; and sadly none if it is very good, though none is terrible.  But you can eat a lot for very little money and hang out as long as you’d like.  For really good, cheap palacsinta, I favor the outdoor stand in front of the shopping mall at the end of the Red Metro line at Örs Vezér ter (it's a Palacsinta/Langos stand in among pizza, gyros, and baked goods stands).

  1. BulletRetes.  Hungarian for strudel…and these places abound as well.  Keep your eyes open, typically Retes is all the sign says.  Can you make a meal out of strudel?  Well, if you like cabbage, you sure can, and if you go to the Best Retes Place in the World (no small journey), you can die happily after having done so.  It’s way the hell out Lehel utca, almost at the third concentric korut, but well served by bus and tram.  Closes for weekends and much of the summer, but is open from early morning until early evening weekdays.  Hot out of the oven; fresh fruit in season; insanely wonderful generally; the cabbage is just what cabbage should be, slightly sweet with an undercurrent of pepper.  Strudel justified.  Less than a buck a piece. Avoid the retes place in the Central Market (because going there will convince you that no piece of strudel can be good enough to justify a 30 minute ride to nowhere; you’d be wrong).

Take the Blue Metro to Lehel ter, then the tram out Lehel utca to Róbert Károly körút.  It's just before the körút on Lehel.

  1. BulletLangos.  Hungarian for, well, langos.  Seriously typical Hungarian fried dough (fried in lard if done properly).  You can order it topped with cheese or sour cream or both, then you slather on intensely garlicy melted fat (melted lard) and ride to heaven on the Cholesterol Express.  My favorite langos place is at the flea market (Ecseri), but I’m not sure whether that’s just because I like the flea market (though the retes at the same spot is awful, and I really want it to be good).

  1. BulletThe Central Market steam tables.  Upstairs on the mezzanine of the Central Market Hall there are steam tables and food vendors.  The largest and most varied of these , more or less dead center on the side of the Market facing the river (the right as you walk in from the front) is also better than pretty good.  Either the stews or the various wursts.  Cheap, filling, tasty.  You won’t need to eat again for a while.

  1. BulletVapiano.  An excellent meal for well under $10, from a rather bizarre Italian fast food restaurant that is neither Italian (it's German-owned) nor fast (everything is cooked to order).  It’s a new European chain of franchises started by the guy who had the original East german McDonald’s franchises.  The Hungarian branch  is a block from Szervita ter and a block from Deak ter on Becsi utca and has very upmarket design…very Italian in look and feel.  And when crowded (which is almost always) the lines to order and watch your food being made are quite slow.  But the pasta is fresh, the pizza cooked individually, and the ingredients are tasty, and you watch it all happen.  Pasta dishes, pizzas (brick oven).  Excellent salads; with dressings that are very light by Hungarian standards.

  1. BulletKinai Bufes.  Cheap Chinese steam tables abound.  In fact, these steam tables are almost the only way you can get Chinese food in Hungary (cook-to-order wok restaurants are rare indeed; the Taiwan, an exception, is too pricey for this list, but is impressively populated by Asian diners on most nights and the food is quite good; since the bulk of Chinese visitors to Budapest are from the PRC, is this place's name meant to be a form of political commentary?).  These steam table restaurants often seem to be staffed entirely by Hungarians with no Asian contributors in sight.  It’s pretty convincing evidence that Chinese food stands up to steam table simmering better than most.  And you can get a plateful of stuff for well under $5.  There’s one on Fehér Hajó utca, just around the corner from Szervita ter that’s clean, good, and open for lunch and early dinner on weekdays.  Very busy, mostly locals despite the fact that the neighborhood is Tourist Central.  Our manager and colleague Ilona Molnar turned me on to it.

  1. BulletBombay Palace. On Andrassy, very near to Liszt Ferenc ter, an Indian restaurant and wrap place that is very inexpensive and has very good food.

  1. BulletGulas soup at the Castro.  The best Gulas in town for my money (and not very much of it).  High speed Internet café and Serbian bistro, the Castro is tucked inside Madach ter, two blocks from Szervita ter.  The room, however, is generally so smoke-filled that you can treat the nicotine as a complimentary side dish.


Many visitors to Budapest come because they’ve been told that it’s ... cheap.  Now, to some extent, that’s old advice and aging rapidly, as prices rise to meet both EU-level labor costs and what the market seems able to bear.  For Americans, the plight of the dollar make it a bit surrealistic.  The serious bargain seeker is likely better served, if not served better, in, say, Bulgaria (but, of course, then you’d be in, uh, Bulgaria.).  Having said that, there is still plenty of good, cheap food.