the endless cafe

 
 
 

When I first started spending time in Budapest I was on a quest for the tastes of my childhood, the food my mother cooked, the dishes that used to be served in every dive in the Manhattan Yorkville neighborhood of my childhood when it teemed with layers of Hungarian emigrés, rather than the indeterminate lump of Gen Xers who presently flee their home kitchens for sushi counters and sports bars.  That was a time when my parents could send a ten year old down the block with a four-tier lunch bucket to bring home his dinner from the Hungarian steamtable cafeteria on 1st Avenue and 80th Street, or could leave word with the modest restaurant on our block that I might be heading there for dinner on my own while my parents went out to a friend’s, swinging back to pay my tab on their way home.


It was a time when Elemer Horvath played gypsy violin with cimbalon accompaniment at Emke, and where the Budapest restaurant had exquisite rolls from Orwasher Bakery, with sweet butter that made the rolls a meal.  A time when Mr. Nemeth's Rigo Pastry Shop was so widely appreciated that it opened an outpost on Madison Avenue down the block from where Ralph Lauren’s flagship is today, and a time where two vast warehouse shops -- Paprikas Weiss (my family’s favorite) and H. Roth -- were the Paprika 'R Us and Lecso Depot of their day, selling Hungarian ingredients, ranging from imported paprika to goosefeather pastry brushes.  Where the pork shop owner Jos. Mertl refused to sell out his shop’s brownstone and a new building grew up around his holdout shop (Paprikas Weiss, next door, had sold out long before and moved up a couple of blocks to a new shop north of 79th Street). 


We’re talking about a 2-block radius of my front door in 1961.  It’s all gone.  That building that went up around Mertl’s shop is coming down, to make room for an even larger apartment building (now swallowing Mertl’s non-Hungarian successor).  Rigo left Madison Avenue long, long ago, and his Yorkville shop closed when his widow passed away about a decade ago.  The successors to those restaurants -- the somewhat upmarket Red Tulip and the neighborhood Mokka have come and gone.


Paprikas Weiss, Mertl and a couple of dozen very different shops have all dwindled down into a single distillation of them all, unlike any of them -- the Hungarian Meat-Packing shop ... it's just a butcher shop, not a cracker barrel country store where the old folks would gossip and reminisce.  Orwasher, where my mother used to buy chunks of bulk yeast to make her challah when we lived around the corner (indeed, where she came back from many blocks away for that yeast after we, too, moved) was the last original shopowner, run by another generation and catering to a far less central european clientele.  And this year he sold out to a new owner who bought the sizzle but seems less committed to the steak.


All the shops and restaurants are gone from New York and, to my astonishment, even more thoroughly gone from Budapest.  Here in New York they simply dwindled away, but in Hungary the Nazis and the Russians managed to plow saltsticks into the ground, rendering once-great bastions of a narrow but towering cuisine into furrows of their former selves.


Seeking Hungarian food in Budapest was a blinding disappointment when I first visited in 2001.  In the absence of great bread, butter sweating drops of cream, pervasively rich pastries and transcendent tomatoes, I failed to notice some remarkable flavors: berries and apricots and pears and melons in season ); Tokaji wines; goose liver in every imaginable configuration; remarkable little hidden corners of revelatory flavor like the retes shop all the way out by Róbert Károly körüt; pastry shops that sold some of the old shapes and familiar savories from Rigo; a pervasive and evocative smell of sauteeing onions and mild peppers; ubiquitous duck breast and crispy duck and goose leg with sweet red cabbage; cauliflower as deep and as subtle as a poor man's truffles.


Worse, I failed to notice that people were cooking in Hungarian restaurant kitchens with an eye and a will to create a new cuisine.  A cuisine connected to tastes more often studied than actually recalled, since virtually no one is cooking in Hungary who was cooking before World War II.  But a passing of the baton nonetheless, a revival of a nation’s attentiveness to its belly.


And most remarkably of all, I didn’t notice that in some ways food is at the periphery of dining out in Budapest, and always has been.  Because the city is all about eating, and sipping, and drinking, and sitting, out; these are its life and its lifestyle; these acts are the dog, the food is just the tail.  This is a city in which everyone had a café they called their own, a place where one could spend not just an afternoon but an entire week, where one’s barber might come calling to shave his customers at their table before they ventured out at midday, where business was done, journals edited, politics schemed, fate bemoaned.


That part of the city didn’t go away.  It has been there continuously, even if the stuff they slapped down on the table headed East for an unpleasantly long while.  Even if every thing worth eating was shipped out to foreign venues for the money or to stock the invaders' tables.  During all of that time people maintained their cafés and their café lives, hopping from one to another as they met friends and conducted business.


I didn’t notice that Budapest was and is less a city than an endless café, then and now, and that the rhythm, pace, spirit, and soul of the city continues to be captured best by viewing all of life as a series of interruptions in one long seating at one’s favorite table.


So, this section of the website now seems the most important one to me, because it is the hub around which the others revolve.  This is the focus, the home base, to which one constantly returns, as one engages in forays to sights and shops and the mundane everything-else of life.


Join me as I nibble my way through the city with a new-found appreciation for its tables and its carafes.



Before we Start:


A Note on Prices:  I tend not to mention prices because as a New Yorker I’m more or less pleasantly surprised everywhere I go in Budapest.  Admittedly, it’s not like the dental work or the plastic surgery, where the price difference is enough to finance your trip, but everything is inexpensive enough that you don’t have to pay very much attention to what you order.  When I eat here, I tend to have one extra course that I wouldn’t order in New York, and considerably more beer and/or wine, and the prices still wind up being 30-50% less.  In general, the restaurants discussed here will cost $20-35/person, everything included, at dinner time.  Many, many places (including the etkezdes mentioned and other small places) will cost well under half that, especially when ordering a tourist menu.  Some places can cost $50/person or even $75, but it takes work to spend that much on a meal in Budapest.  When a restaurant’s prices are especially low or high, I try to mention it, but otherwise I am afraid I’m not much use here.  Many have websites, and on those websites many post their menus, so that may be some help.



A Note on Tipping:  There’s an old story about the trip by rail from France to Russia on the Orient Express during the soviet era: people from Moscow pulled into the station in Budapest and thought they had reached Paris; those from Paris pulled into the Budapest station and thought they had reached Moscow...


Tipping is sort of the same thing, it depends on where you come from; Budapest captures a little bit of both.  If you start from Paris, where service is included in the bill by law and tipping beyond rounding the bill to the nearest Euro is an uncommon recognition of really extraordinary service, Budapest will seem familiar.  No one seems to expect a tip, and 10% is often greeted with real appreciation or even surprise (especially when one is away from the tourist areas).  The service is often lax, indolent or surly (though less and less frequently so) and customer satisfaction seems a low priority in many places.  Cab drivers especially seem not to expect much of a tip.


But if you come from New York City, you’ll recognize that most waiters in Budapest are extremely ill-paid and those in the tourist venues especially so, relying on tips as the bulk of their income.  In settings aimed at foreign trade tipping 10-15% seems increasingly to be hoped for if not expected.  In general, wages for most jobs are low enough that not tipping is, in fact, an indignity deserved only by those who do a genuinely poor job.


So, I have come to tip 15% for good service in tourist locations, 10-15% in spots that seem really aimed at local trade.  But you can get away with almost anything.




 

At least since the Turks ran the place, Budapest has been about sitting at one's favorite Café reading, and thinking, schmoozing and debating; food is secondary to the café life.  Indeed, it remains less a city than an endless café, and the rhythm, pace, spirit, and soul of the city continue to be captured best by seeing life as a series of interruptions as one wends one's way from table to table.