Veteran travel writer Paul Harris finds restaurants that transport him back to old Jewish Budapest, soothing sulfur baths, classy hotels and much more that delights him.
By Paul Harris
It was a little like those illegal gambling or drinking dens you see in old American black-and-white movies.
You get the picture. At the back of a smart looking bar or restaurant a hidden door leads on to a dingy room with a fug of smoky haze all but obscuring the scene inside.
While there was nothing seedy, illegal or even smoky about the scene that greeted me as I was escorted to the rear of the Spinoza Restaurant in Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, I couldn’t help but be transported back to those old BBC repeats.
Through a hidden door was a thirties’ style theatre with a good number already in their seats waiting for the show to begin.
And the show certainly was a throwback to an era of monochrome and even silent movies — a traditional klezmer band in concert.
Most of the audience was not Jewish and only one of the six-piece band was actually of the faith, although some of the others had Jewish roots. But the music was undeniably Yiddish and Hebrew, with some Shabbat songs thrown in, appropriately because it was just before sunset on a Friday night.
The concert band Sabbath Song is led by Masa Tamas and has a loyal following with klezmer fans coming from all over for its Friday night gigs.
What follows is unusual but not unexpected in modern day Budapest — the Spinoza restaurant serves a traditional Friday night dinner. It’s not kosher, though manager Takacs Imre says that they separate meat and milk and use kosher meat and goose when diners request it, even offering plastic cutlery.
He added: “We wanted to get as near as possible to the original style. “We are trying to make it like the restaurants of many years ago, even with fresh matzo balls.”
And the cost of dinner, with a glass of sparkling wine and klezmer? Just 5000 forint — around $20.
Spinoza’s owner, Tal Lev, an Israeli, adds: “We serve lighter food, a combination of Israeli dishes and light Hungarian.
“Things that no one else serves, like whole roast eggplant on a bed of tahini, with pine nuts and feta cheese.”
The Spinoza is not alone in a Budapest keen to recall and indeed embrace aspects of a Jewish culture that had all but disappeared in under communist rule.
It’s hard to square the Budapest I found, seemingly enjoying everything Jewish, with the outbreaks of anti Semitism in Hungary of recent months.
You can imagine being in 1950s Budapest at the Kadar Restaurant, known to locals as Kádár bácsi’s (Uncle Kadar’s place). In a less-than-salubrious district, you enter to find the owner Sandor Orban, in his white coat, collecting payment from diners at the door as he bids them farewell.
You just tell him what you’ve eaten, including the number of slices of bread. It’s all based on trust.
This is like a workers’ cafe, with wooden tables, plastic cloths, soda siphons and trays of cutlery.
Here, you will find typical Hungarian Jewish fare, again non-kosher, but with a menu featuring fare such as beef stew, cholent and chicken soup with matzo balls, stuffed kohlrabi, káposztás kocka (cabbage pasta), and boiled beef. Main courses are around $6.
Rahel Raj calls herself a 21st-century Yiddishe mama.
The daughter of a rabbi and mother of a toddler, she runs a pair of popular Jewish-style Budapest confectionery shops that specialize in favorites such as flodni, a calorific confection of layered nuts, apple and poppy seeds that is one of the symbols of local Jewish cuisine.
Tortaszalon is near the Danube, and Café Noe, a tiny patisserie snack bar is in the heart of the old Jewish district — right next door to a Judaica shop run by Rachel’s mother, who herself is the author of a Jewish cookbook.
“A modern Yiddishe mama is not someone who sits in a chair and says, ‘eat!’,” comments Raj, a slim 31-year-old with long, dark hair. “I like to dress up, I have a profession, I have a baby — but on Shabbat I serve a four-course Fridaynight meal.”
Raj is part of the burgeoning Jewish food scene in Budapest that’s making an impact on restaurant menus in the city and on the way Hungarian Jews eat at home.
As well as her bakery stores, she writes a column for a local Jewish magazine and anchored a 10- part Jewish cooking series on Hungarian TV. One of her guests was Andras Singer, whose award-winning Fulemule restaurant
goes heavy on cholesterol- laden recipes handed down from his mother and grandmother. They include stuffed goose neck, chopped liver, spiced goose fat and six types of solet — the Hungarian version of cholent which can be found all over Budapest.
Every winter since the mid-1990s, Andras Kovacs, a Jewish studies professor at Central European University, and a group of friends have staged a solet competition.
Kovacs said: “I had solet growing up as a child. My aunt was a great solet chef— I use her recipe.”
Everywhere you go in Budapest there are reminders of its rich Jewish heritage.
The Paris department store, the first of its kind in Budapest is but one — and behind its facade is yet another whose magnificence has to be beholden. The store was opened in 1911 by Samuel Goldberger, a textile manufacturer, and designed by a Jewish architect Gustav Petschacher. But it is what lies behind the first floor that takes one’s breath away.
Today it is known as the Book Cafe, where book lovers can take a volume from the bookshop below and leaf through it over coffee — with no charge.
A century-and-a-half ago this was the Jewish casino, or Károly Lotz Hall, a men-only haunt whose frescos, murals, gold-plated decor and wooden inlays were the work of the eponymous artist. Three years ago the huge neo- Renaissance room was restored to its former glory and is well worth a visit. A newly opened art gallery is housed in the building, too.
Budapest is one of the great, elegant cities of Europe. Its coffee houses with mouthwatering arrays of cakes and pastries are legendary.
To unwind, my advice is: pay a visit to one of the city’s famous baths.
One, the Szecheny baths complex in City Park, is mind-boggling in its sheer size. Hundreds, if not thousands of mainly locals but plenty of tourists too, enjoy the seemingly neverending outdoor and indoor pools that are maintained at various temperatures.
There are sulfur baths, saunas and an ingenious wave pool constructed in 1927. Visitors can also enjoy a range of massage treatments and even play chess in the pool. A trip to the historic Gellert Hotel’s baths on the Buda side of the Danube is equally unforgettable.
The outstanding feature is the bubble pool in its art nouveau complex, surrounded by column arcades.
Although this is no longer operated by the hotel itself and would benefit from extensive renovation, it remains a landmark in the city and still attracts a loyal clientele.
The hotel itself runs an extremely smart spa where I enjoyed massage treatment at the highest order.
One way to experience an overview of Budapest and finally understand the split between the historical cities of Buda and Pest is to take a Danube cruise.
Mine, with Legenda, offered a multi-lingual commentary with refreshments and the option of remaining on Margaret Island for a couple of hours.
The Four Seasons Hotel Gresham palace is an interesting place, situated in an art nouveau building that housed the Londonbased Gresham Life Assurance Company.
The premises have been lovingly restored to Four Seasons’ exacting standards and the hotel, situated on the Pest side of the chain bridge, also has a first rate restaurant.
Not too far away is the Intercontinental Hotel whose restaurant affords a fabulous view of Buda and its palace.
The Danubius Group operates 12 hotels in Budapest alone, all of which are very individual and in diverse parts of the city.
Like the Gellert, the Astoria is an iconic monument dating back to 1914.
Although recently renovated, it retains a timeless elegance. Situated conveniently close to the Astoria metro station and just a short walk away from the Danube and the famed Vaci Utca shopping street, the four-star Astoria is still a popular venue within the city for business and leisure guests, as well as those just seeking refuge in its elegant bar or famed Mirror Café and restaurant. The Astoria is extremely close to the Dohany Street synagogue and Jewish Museum.
The Danubius hotel with the wow factor is undoubtedly the Hilton. Set behind a magnificent 16th century Baroque facade of what used to be a Jesuit college, the Hilton is high-up on the Buda side of the city with amazing views of the Parliament building and the Danube.
Its executive lounge is a wonderful, well-run facility, offering drinks and in the evening pretty good food.
The Hilton’s Icon restaurant is also well worth trying and there is a 24-hour fitness center and jogging track.
There is much to see within a short walk of the hotel. Among the local attractions are the neogothic terraces of Fisherman’s Bastion as well as the Royal Palace, the Historical and National Museums.
There are numerous interesting shops in the ancient winding streets and a reliable bus service that operates frequently to Pest, the opposite side of the city.
The Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, situated on the Great Boulevard is a couple of hundred yards away from the Western Railway station, a splendid building in its own right.
The Radisson is the reincarnation of yet another of Budapest’s historic hotels, the famed Britannia, which was established at the beginning of the last century. Theaters, museums and dozens of restaurants are close by as is a massive shopping mall next to the station.
The Radisson has 239 bedrooms and eight cavernous suites as well as an indoor swimming pool, its designers have succeeded in combining the traditional elements of the building with modern facilities without losing the features for which the hotel has been renowned for more than a century.
The Radisson, which is conveniently located for bus and metro services, offers dining options in the relatively new Olives restaurant with its open-plan kitchen or the Zsolany café.
The Gundel Restaurant, reputedly one of Budapest’s top eating places, is a monument in itself to pre-war and earlier Budapest.
At one time co-owned by the Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder, it numbers Queen Elizabeth II amongst past patrons.
Today owned by the Danubius group, this is restaurant elegance personified and dates back well over a century.
Even at the Gundel, there was a nod to the city’s Jewish heritage — during my visit the resident orchestra played a host of Israeli Jewish and Yiddish classics.
With additional reporting by Ruth Gruber
Paul Harris is editor of the Jewish Telegraph Group of newspapers in the UK. He has been a travel writer for 40 years and is a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Contact via email: firstname.lastname@example.org