Scruffy Budapest is the antithesis of the cosmopolitan city of today.
The central European city, where the heart of Europe’s left-wing political economy makes a sort of inner harbor, has moved beyond the bland and decoratively grittier of Ferenc Puskas’s 1992 masterpiece, The Beatles’ self-sacrificing Beatlemania.
Now known by the fewer-than-appearances-denied-but-still-devoid-of-self-importance name “Budapest,” the Hungarian capital’s sights include an avant-garde revamped Cafe Royale; four new mini-restaurants that feed tourists of every type; and the top-notch Csaba Manor home of some of the most exciting local cuisine on Earth, traditionally known as “kolaces.”
The city’s culinary scene, more radical than you would expect, is something to enjoy. While roaming Budapest over the weekend in the style of the good burghers of Liz Rivera’s postcard-book Baz=Cohadour, I saw details — a dangling lettuce leaf strung with pearl-clear electrodes, for example — that have nothing to do with gastronomy. Such out-of-the-box arts-and-crafts ideas don’t always yield mind-blowing results in restaurants or theatres, but in catering to an ordinary drunk pounding back plodding Budeslav cocktails and taking in the displays of busty local beauty with the same self-confident glee as young Toshiro Miki, one always has something memorable to look forward to.
Papi Nocic, the owner of the Yule Cafe & Bistro, one of the city’s new “reinvention restaurants,” is elated with his opening day business.
“I remember as a kid my uncle telling me: ‘The greatest restaurants in the world are known by their own names,’” he says. “Today, it’s a lesson we all need to learn. I think we should all have our own name on the doors of our restaurants. It is good to have our own perception.”
Fatih Eruő is the culinary veteran behind Fatih Mano, one of the more traditional “kolaces,” as locals call them.
“That was always the case,” he says, no doubt, but not really in the way that it is today. Once, the city’s cafes filled with the idea of being somewhere where artists, composers, poets and writers would drop by on their way from studio to studio. They are no longer venerated for serving as the meeting place of artists, artisans and intellectuals, but by the masses in search of cheap and delicious gastronomy. “Today we are not famous because we are good,” says Bezmen Eslava, who has a new restaurant, Bistrot a Día, that looks like a series of richly decorated rooms during a Renaissance painting. “We are famous because we are cheap and because people here know nothing about fine dining.”
The Hungarian currency is being hammered lately in an economy that is in political turmoil. The country is staring at a next election, in 2019, and unable to find a center-left coalition that is enamored with foreign aid. An early date with the IMF might, in other words, be just around the corner.
But perhaps a Budapest cash-crop from international tourism can help fortify the economy. All those foreign visitors to Budapest, walking through the doors of the local cuisine? Meantime, they might as well spend their money on a nice meal.