Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.
It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”
Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023
What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)
My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.
I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.
It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.
Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055
What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte
My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.
Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.
Callas Café & Restaurant
Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20
What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake
My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.
I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.
Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051
What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee
My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.
This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.
Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”
New York Café
Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073
What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae
My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.
I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.