Tucked away on a back street deep in the guts of a seedy Budapest neighborhood, the building’s facade is old and weathered. Battered by history. Practically bomb-damaged. Is this really the place? Confirming the address, I step across cracked cobbles through the grimy passage and pop out into a lively courtyard.
The distressed brick walls have been expertly spiffed up, with garlands and twinkle lights hung just so. Behind a long counter, chefs scramble to keep up with the orders that just keep pouring in. The tables are packed with eaters. And here at the entrance, packs of hungry foodies wait patiently for their turn.
This is Mazel Tov, one of Budapest’s trendiest new restaurants. It’s all the rage today — hard to get a table. But soon the novelty will fade, and Mazel Tov will quietly join the ranks of reliable standbys…a list that gets longer and longer every year. That’s the life cycle of a restaurant in a foodie city.
And make no mistake: Budapest is definitely a foodie city. In my last post, I raved about traditional Hungarian food…but I also warned that it’s hard to come by in the capital. “Hungarian restaurants” in Budapest are, almost without exception, looking to exploit a touristy clientele. They line up along the main shopping street, Váci utca, where hawkers out front try to lure in suckers willing to pay too much for a miserable meal and worse service.
That’s why I don’t even bother looking for traditional Hungarian food in Budapest. Why would I? If you really care about good food, you don’t go to New York City for barbecue on Times Square…you go for trendy foodie haunts in Tribeca or Williamsburg. And in Budapest, the cutting-edge, experimental culinary scene is far from the obvious tourist zones.
A decade and a half ago, when I was just getting to know Budapest and writing the first edition of our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook, I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to recommend any restaurants. But then something happened. Leafy, mellow Franz Liszt Square became trendy. And wedged between the tourist-oriented theme joints and the drinks-only cocktail bars, a fresh new restaurant opened its doors. Menza (the word for a dreary communist canteen) boldly ventured into Modern Hungarian cooking: traditional ingredients and recipes, but with a fresh spin to please the modern palate. I can still remember my first dinner at Menza: They took the greasy, heavy lángos fry bread (one bite sits in your stomach for a week), lightened it up, and wrapped it around a delicious paprika-dusted entrée. This definitely wasn’t your Grandpa’s goulash. And the decor was a tongue-in-cheek update of commie cafeteria orange. It felt fresh. Bold. Postmodern.
Menza — still respected, but considered an almost quaint throwback — became a blueprint for the 21st-century Budapest restaurant. Imitators sprung up all over town. And some of those imitators went a step or two beyond — putting their own twists and turns on Hungarian cooking. These days, I can barely keep up. In the year or two between my visits, whole new restaurant districts flourish and whither. It’s all I can do to keep track of the latest buzz. And I spend much of my Budapest research time simply scouting everything that’s new…and re-evaluating the old standbys. Here’s the latest scoop:
The Seventh District is red-hot. It’s home to most of the city’s top “ruin pubs” (which I’ll explain in my next post). And now it’s emerging as a culinary destination, as well. In a nod to the district’s heritage as the former Jewish Quarter, Jewish-themed restaurants are popular here. Macesz Bistro is a Grandma’s-dining-room-cozy corner restaurant serving traditional Jewish recipes. And the new Mazel Tov — which I described at the start of the article — takes a different tack, serving Modern Israeli small plates like kebabs, shwarma, falafel, tabouleh, and shakshuka. While the atmosphere is wonderful, the food’s a bit hit-or-miss…not quite living up to the outsize buzz it’s currently enjoying. (But, then, how could it? Once the trendy accolades fade, Mazel Tov will be just fine.) Just around the corner is the inviting little KönyvBár & Restaurant (könyv means “book”), with a literary-themed menu and a dining room that feels like a sleek, minimalist library.
St. István Square — in front of the towering facade of St. István’s Basilica, in the once-sleepy government and banking district — has really taken off as a food and wine lovers’ mecca. The cross-street called Sas utca has been a culinary hotbed in recent years. While flashy, style-over-substance places have come and gone along Sas, the reliable standby — with an engaging menu, reasonable prices, and a cozy dining room — remains Café Kör. Closer to St. István Square itself, a pair of wine-focused eateries have earned adoring fans. The classy Borkonyha (“Winekitchen”), which earned its first Michelin star in 2014, takes pride in pairing top-quality Hungarian wines with a nose-to-tail aesthetic and creative reinterpretations of classic cooking. (“Hungarian dishes,” the owner explained to me, “but less paprika, less fat.”) This place is popular and understandably jammed (I recently saw a selfie of Tom Hanks mugging with the staff)…so reserve ahead. For something more casual, try the nearby DiVino wine bar, which lists 130 bottles of Hungarian wines on its chalkboard (most glasses for under $5…did I mention Budapest is remarkably affordable?). They pair the wine with small plates, and have wonderful seating out on the square.
I have plenty of other reliable favorites, scattered around the city. If you care about food and want a solid meal in Budapest, check out these options: Mák Bistro — pricey but unpretentious, hidden down a forgotten side-street — feels like a well-kept secret, with a lively brasserie ambience and a short, carefully selected seasonal menu. Bock Bisztró, run by a revered Hungarian vintner from Villány, offers 60 wines by the glass and traditional Hungarian staples presented with modern flourish (just shy of “deconstructed”). And Borssó Bistro, with a cozy two-story dining room near University Square, offers small portions of delicately assembled modern French cuisine with a bit of Hungarian flair.
Another big Budapest food trend is the renaissance of mangalica. That’s a uniquely Hungarian breed of wooly pig — basically a domesticated boar. The mangalica was out of fashion for years. But in this age of foodies who revere the almighty pig, the mangalica‘s high levels of unsaturated fat, distinctive flavor, and catchy backstory have made it newly trendy. These days, you’ll see it on every menu… and, in the case of the mangalica-themed Pesti Disznó restaurant, it’s literally in every item on the menu.
Budapest has long had an elegant café culture (like its neighbor up the Danube, Vienna). While many cafés serve food, their forté is combining opulent surroundings with a take-your-time approach to coffee. The budget option hides upstairs in the Alexandra bookstore, along the main boulevard, Andrássy út. When the bookstore chain renovated this fine old turn-of-the-century department store, they spared no expense in restoring the sumptuous Lotz Hall. Now they fill this genteel space with a grand café and occasional live piano music. And, remarkably, they’ve kept the prices within reach: You can get a latte and slice of cake here for about the same price as at your hometown Starbucks.
That’s not the case at Budapest’s showiest coffee house, the New York Café. Originally built in 1894 as part of the “New York Palace” — and it really is palatial — this fanciful, over-the-top explosion of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance epitomizes the “mix and match, but plenty of everything” Historicist style of the day. In the early 20th century, artists, writers, and musicians came here to escape their dreary apartments and be inspired by its opulence. Now restored, the café sells the most expensive cup of coffee in Hungary, along with mediocre food. But you know what? It really may be worth the $7 investment in a caffe latte, just to sit here for an hour.
All of this is just scratching the surface. (If your interest is piqued, pick up my Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.) Foodies are in heaven in Budapest. It’s worth adding an extra night or two to your itinerary, just to eat well. And even those who don’t know sous-vide from deep-fried find plenty to enjoy in the Hungarian capital.