The Capital of Hungary entices visitors with its enchanting fairytale-like architecture. Its beauty can be traced back to another era – the 'gilded age' when wealthy aristocrats erected magnificent palaces and the intellectual and creative elite flocked to be amongst the action.
The expansive metropolis has gone through turbulent historical times, and now, once again, is emerging as a city that has it all. Often referred to as the 'Paris of the East', Budapest's culinary offerings are certainly up there with the French capital.
A stroll through Budapest quickly reveals that locals love taking their time to savour their national food. For a start, the chars in every restaurant are very comfortable. “We take our time and enjoy our food,” laughs Andras Jókuti, a renowned foodie, writer, blogger and media personality who runs culinary walks in Budapest (eat-budapest.com). His enthralling walks can be customised to anybody. One element does however remain constant. “I showcase truly authentic eateries … so we consume a lot of calories.”
Calories mean nothing in Budapest, it's all about the flavour, and Hungarian food is creamy, buttery and fatty – which is why it tastes so good.
The Zsidai family own some of the best Hungarian restaurants in town, and three of these are a hop and a skip away from each other on Fortuna Street in the scenic Castle District. Manager Zoltán Roy Zsidai ensures that the cuisine across all his eateries is top grade and differs between the restaurants so that visitors are able to try a variety of Hungarian food.
Pierrot (pierrot.hu), housed in a beautiful historic building, was the first family restaurant to open in 1982. Here the food is cosmopolitan, the ambience sophisticated and a talented pianist delicately strokes the keyboard each evening. 21 (21restaurant.hu) is a modern bistro with a focus on heartier Hungarian fare, while Pest-Buda (pestbudabistro.hu) offers diners food like a grandma would make it – rustic and delicious. “Gastronomy is not only our profession, it's our life,” smiles Zoltán. “It's our mission to make Hungarian cuisine shine in its pre-war glory again.”
And shine it does. Hungarians today are regaining interest in cuisine – they try new dishes, cook at home and shop at markets for fresh produce.
Bock Bistro (bockbistro.hu) on the Pest side of Budapest (there and three brances) is always full with happy diners who flock to the industrial-chic space for true Hungarian fare. Chef Zoltán Dano has a quirky, lopsided smile, and his eyes light up when he talks about his work. “People love the atmosphere at Bock Bistro,” he says with that special glint in his eyes. “The people, the food, the atmosphere – all this together makes it one of the best restaurants in Budapest.”
Expect to be impressed with dishes such as cheese-filled pasta pockets, grilled fish and decadent duck breast on offer. “There is more to Hungarian food than people realise,” Zoltán enthusiastically explains as he sets down a cottage cheese cake jazzed up with sprigs of dill. “It's more than just goulash and paprika chiken.”
The new wave
Andras is an animated talker, visibly excited about the flourishing culinary scene. “A few years ago people were not so interested in food, but now they read my blog, book my culinary walks and attend foodie events. Today the people of Budapest want to know more about food, and in response to this wave of interest new restaurants are opening up.”
Towards the end of 2012, Zona (zonabudapest.com) – funky wine-food bar that looks out onto the Chain Bridge and offers customers a different menu twice daily – came on the scene. Suave socialites peruse the ever-changing menus while waitresses weave gracefully between the tables, shuttling plates of vibrantly coloured food. Here, the menu is crafted depending on what's fresh, and the tantalising creations that come out fuse traditional Hungarian cuisine with Basque and Asian flavours.
A more recent newcomer is French-themed La Perle Noire (laperlenoire.hu) located in the charming Mamaison Hotel Andrassy (mamaison.com). Sophisticated and seductive, this restaurant is a delightful surprise that was opened mid-2013. István Pestvi leads the kitchen – a chef legendary for his beautiful art-like presentation of food. Interesting subtle flavours such as ginger in a traditional soup, or surprising textures such as jelly in a pert salad, offer diners a sensory experience within contemporary and elegant surroundings. István's second passion is pairing the land with the sea, and the juicy beefsteak topped with a plump mussel is a perfect example how the two can work marvellously well together.
One of a kind
Onyx (onyxrestaurant.hu), is one of two Michelin-starred restaurants in Budapest – the other is Costes (costes.hu) – and if you want to snag a seat here book weeks in advance. Opened in 2007, it takes its name from the brilliant onyx stone that sits confidently in the stylish neo-barogue interior. What makes Onyx unique is that the head chef is in fact a chef couple. Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll became romantically involved while working together at Onyx, and now manage the kitchen together too.
Diners here are presented with a gastronomic bonanza that celebrates Hungarian cuisine reinterpreted with new culinary techniques. Traditional dishes are jazzed up with interesting flavours and the desserts elevate the evening.
The team behind Onyx know a thing or two about desserts … they've been doing it for years at the connecting Gerbeaud (gerbeaud.hu) – a historical café that has been running since 1858. It's a massive, grandiose space made up of seven separate salons which can fit 350 people. “On Saturday afternoons it fills up,” explains Anna Niszkács, director of sales and marketing at Gerbeaud and Onyx, as she squeezes past customers lining up to order the beautiful decadent delights on showcase in the glass cabinets.
Another big space that fills up on weekends, albeit of a different variety, is Robinson (robinsonrestaurant.hu). Away from the centre of town overlooking the picturesque Városligeti Lake, the modern two-storey building contains the only steakhouse in Budapest, and it's the only restaurant in town that can claim numerous celebrity guests, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Redford and David Copperfield.
The steak is the main attraction with the fine cuts sourced from renowned Italian meat man Dario Cecchini. However, everything else is top grade too. A swathe of house-made truffle butter is effortlessly teamed with woodfire-oven bread, while thick, slippery ribbons of pasta are slathered in a creamy sauce that has you begging for more. Calories don't count in Budapest.
While celebrities frequent Robinson, top chefs from around the globe visit the family-run Hungarian-Jewish Rosenstein (rosenstein.hu) – a gem that's a must-visit.
The cuisine is hearty, gutsy and guileless and Jewish eggs and matzo ball soup are both special traditional dishes worth a try.
With the help of a translator the elderly, charismatic chef-owner Tibor Rosenstein explains that he learnt to cook from his grandmother as child. “When I opened Rosenstein everyone wanted to know my recipes, so I said I would share them after 10 years,” he chuckles.
A man of his word, Tibor did share them – in the form of his first cookbook, titled Rosenstein Restaurant: Favourite Recipes of 10 Years – and Budapest residents recreated those same delicious dishes at home.
In Budapest it's this growin interest in cuisine that is infectious. Like Tibor sharing his secret recipes, like Andras sharing his reviews through his blog, Hungarians are again excited about their cuisine. “We've been asleep for too long,” laughs Andras. “Now we are ready to show the world what we've got.”