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Culinary neighbourhoods: Budapest

From casual canteens to Michelin-starred restaurants, the Hungarian capital is full of places to dine out — nowhere more so than in the Jewish Quarter, Szabadság tér and Bartók Béla út.

By Steve Fallon
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:22 BST
Mazel Tov Bar
Mazel Tov Bar.
Photograph by Mr Foto

Budapest is a city that rewards wanderers. Natural beauty and elaborate architecture abound, whether you find yourself up in the Buda Hills, strolling along Pest’s riverside promenade or standing on one of the nine bridges that span the mighty River Danube. And eating out is the perfect way to punctuate a day’s exploring. With the culinary scene in the Hungarian capital having blossomed in recent years, there’s a seemingly endless assortment of dining spots to discover — everything from renovated markets and food trucks to neighbourhood bistros and Michelin-starred restaurants. The gastronomic revolution can be felt across Budapest, but especially so in the Jewish Quarter of the Erzsébetváros district; in the area around St Stephen’s Basilica and Szabadság tér (Liberty Square) in Pest; and along south Buda’s long boulevard, Bartók Béla út.

Bartók Béla út
Running southwest from the Danube, this long thoroughfare in Buda stretches out under the watchful gaze of the Liberty Monument, the hilltop statue of the lady holding a palm frond in her outstretched arms. Most of the surrounding area is given over to the prestigious Budapest University of Technology and Economics (BME), and its students are regulars at the neighbourhood’s many trendy cafes, wine bars and veggie and vegan dining spots.

Like two peas in a pod, Hadik Kávéház and Szatyor Bár share a compact space — in this case separated only by a door. While Hadik is a revamped old-world coffee house dating back to the early 20th century, with an array of antiques (faux and otherwise) on its shelves, Szatyor is its younger and funkier sister, with cocktails at the bar and street art on the walls. The former is the place to come for pretty cakes and a set lunch, while the latter has more substantial starters and mains for dinner, including dishes like grilled duck liver with pear and walnuts and sztrapacska — sheep’s-cheese dumplings served with bacon.

Directly across the street is the ultra-cool Kelet Cafe & Gallery. With newspapers and a used-book exchange on the ground floor and an art gallery above, this is the kind of place where you could easily while away a few hours, pausing for a leisurely breakfast or vegetarian lunch.

Should you linger in this neighbourhood after dark, entertainment comes in the form of the nearby B8 Pub — home to Hungary’s best craft beers. There are 50-odd types from a dozen different brewers on offer, as well as 10 kinds of pálinka (fruit brandy). But for those who prefer grape over grain, Palack Borbár is just the place, overlooking the river just south of the landmark Hotel Gellért (which masqueraded as part of the Grand Budapest Hotel). It serves over 100 vintages from a dozen Hungarian wine regions, plus platters of sliced meats and cheese — the preferred accompaniment here.

Apple and grave tart from Hadik.
Photograph by Botond Wertan

St Stephen’s Basilica & Szabadság tér

Centred around Szabadság tér, one of the city’s largest squares, this neighbourhood is dominated by the beautiful Basilica. It’s a district of embassies, including the fortress-like American one, banks (the Hungarian National Bank is next door) and offices.

When it comes to dining, the Belvárosi Piac (Downtown Market), is a local landmark. Once an uninspiring covered structure selling produce of unknown provenance, it’s now a renovated, all-singing, all-dancing market and food hall, with a dozen or so eateries on the upper gallery serving everything from főzelék, a traditional Hungarian vegetable dish, to Thai noodles. Among the best places to eat here are Buja Disznó(k), specialising in pork; Moszkva tér, dishing up Russian classics, and Stand25 Bisztró, which serves a top-notch goulash.

Meanwhile, by the market’s entrance is the compact, retro-style Kispiac Bisztró, where affable owner Zsolt Ferenczi reigns supreme. After the cold sour-cherry soup (only available in summer), you could try the stuffed csülök (pig’s trotter) or one of the fish dishes, but Zsolt maintains the best thing to order is the wild boar spare ribs with savanyúság (pickled vegetables) on the side. And he’s right. As for dessert, be sure to order the plum jam derelye (a filled pastry), made to a recipe handed down from Zsolt’s grandmother. Although he initially thought it “too ordinary” to serve, it’s now one of Kispiac Bisztró’s best sellers.

In a district where students rub shoulders with bankers, you’ll find just about every type of eatery. A small étkezde (casual diner), Kisharang is a popular lunch spot serving daily specials, but for something a bit more stylish, though still relaxed enough that you can kick your shoes off under the table, head a few blocks north to Zeller Bistro. This relaxed hipster spot has one of the prettiest dining rooms in town, with its skylight and a veritable jungle of plants and flowers. When Anna Kopócsy opened this place in 2013, little did she imagine the locally sourced produce — Hungarian grey beef from the Great Plain and wine from Balaton — would be so popular, but it’s swiftly become a local favourite. Don’t miss the signature whitebait or Anna’s grandmother’s carrot cake.

Closer to the basilica — right in front of it, in fact — DiVino Borbár is pretty much the place that put ‘new’ Hungarian wine on the map. Here you can choose from more than 120 wines produced by three-dozen vintners, accompanied by fabulous food.

Lunch at DiVino Borbár.

The Jewish Quarter

In recent years, the Jewish Quarter — west of the Grand Boulevard — has morphed from a tranquil neighbourhood into Party Central. Yet, it still manages to retain its status as one of Budapest’s gastronomic hotspots, with an array of smart restaurants to choose from.

For contemporary cuisine and a buzzy atmosphere, start Barack & Szilva, one of the many modern bistros. It serves regional dishes such as duck pâté with dried plums, and grilled catfish with lecsó (a local take on ratatouille) — all accompanied by the sound of the cimbalom (a stringed instrument). Around the corner you’ll find Mazel Tov, an upmarket take on the ruin bar, with cocktails and sharing platters in chic surroundings.

For something more casual, head to Marika, in Klauzál tér market, and try the ultimate Hungarian street food — lángos (deep-fried dough topped with sour cream or cheese). Klauzál tér is also the perfect place to sample Jewish soul food, at Kádár Étkezde. On Saturday the thing to order here is sólet, a stew made with kidney beans, barley, onions, paprika and goose.

Another great grazing spot (on Sundays only) is the nearby farmers’ market at the cavernous Szimpla Kert ruin bar, where you’ll find dozens of local producers serving dishes such as pulled mangalica pork. Or, for more quintessential Hungarian cuisine, try Gettó Gulyás, a hip joint close to the Orthodox Synagogue, where you can order everything from goulash to chicken paprikás.

Interested in trying a local tipple or two? Walk the short distance south from the landmark Great Synagogue, towards the former Hungarian National Theatre building and Bródy Sándor utca — the street where the 1956 Revolution began. Here, at Tasting Table, Gábor Bánfalvi offers a crash course in Hungarian wine. Expect tastings of up to five vintages paired with a sumptuous cheese and charcuterie platter. By the end you’ll be fluent in red wines from Eger and Villány, dry whites from Lake Balaton and Somló, and honey-sweet Tokaj dessert wine.

When in Budapest

Say cheers
Always make eye contact when clinking glasses of wine or pálinka (fruit brandy), and at least try to say ‘egészségedre’ (cheers). But don’t do it with beer glasses. It’s said that when the Habsburgs defeated the Hungarians in the 1848 War of Independence, the Austrians celebrated by clinking their steins, which the Hungarians vowed never to do again.

Dining definitions
An étterem is a restaurant with a large selection of dishes. A vendéglő (or kisvendéglő) is smaller and serves inexpensive regional dishes. An étkezde or kifőzde is like a diner, often with counter seats. A csárda, meanwhile, is a country inn — even if it’s in the city.

Bag a bargain
Set lunch menus at most restaurants — including relatively high-end ones — cost much less than at dinnertime.

How to tip
When tipping in a restaurant, never leave money on the table. Instead, tell the waiter how much you intend give them, and they’ll give you the correct amount of change.

Meal times
On the whole, Hungarians aren’t big eaters of reggeli (breakfast). Ebéd (lunch), eaten at around 1pm, is traditionally the main meal. Vacsora (dinner), eaten at about 8pm in restaurants, is less substantial at home — meats, cheese and pickled vegetables.

Published in the Hungary, a culinary journey supplement distributed with National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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