For someone who loves coffee as much as I do, when the opportunity to travel to Budapest, Hungary for a conference became a possibility I jumped at the chance. Budapest is known, at least in part, for its coffee houses, or kávéház, in Hungarian. The kávéház should not be confused with the more common cafés you find in the city. It was the Ottomans who introduced coffee to Hungarians during the occupation from 1541 to circa 1700. Since then, coffee has become serious business in Hungary, with Budapest functioning as a sort of ground zero for the beverage.
Although Budapest may not be the coffee capital that it once was, the city still preserves its caffeinated heritage with grace and style. The coffee house of the nineteenth and twentieth century also served as social centers where citizens would come to discuss everything from politics to literature. The coffee houses can be considered sites of intellectual debate and thought. However, the utopia of thinking that took place in the coffee houses did not last forever. My copy of the Bradt Budapest City Guide, Third Edition states the following: “The importance of the coffee house as a forum for social discussion and expression diminished in the 1940s, and the more staunchly working-class and socialist coffee bar took hold, but many of the classics of the era remain” (84). Now the coffee houses are more for the tourists than for political and cultural discussion. Like everything else, they have become commoditized and Disneyified. Yet, the coffee houses of Budapest are still worth a visit.
I managed to track about a dozen or so during the week I was in Budapest. There were three that I planned to visit long before I left home. Others, and some of the best ones I hasten to add, were discovered completely by accident while roaming the streets of the city. Thankfully, Budapest, like most European cities, is a walking friendly city. The first coffee house I walked into was Gerbeaud’s. After nearly two hours of walking around one night looking for this place, I managed to come across it by accident. It was right in front of me the entire time. The café stands at the north end of the Váci, Budapest’s most touristy street. Gerbeaud’s is named for Emile Gerbeaud, a Swiss baker. Gerbeaud is known more for its cakes and pastries than it is for its coffee. When I finally managed to walk into the place it was getting ready to close for the day, so I was unable to sample some of the cakes that appeared in the glass case as you walk in.
The next day I stopped at was Café Centrál. This was the place I was looking forward to visiting most. So one morning I decided to skip the hotel breakfast and make my way down the several blocks to Centrál. The inside is what one would expect from a cold war thriller. Centrál looks like it comes straight out of Hollywood. Its leather chairs and woodwork, combined with the wonderful aroma of coffee and pastries make this an ideal place to linger for an hour or so. I ordered a cappuccino and chocolate croissant and opened a book. For a short time I was in heaven. The service was the best out of all the coffee houses I visited, and it was, for the short time I was there, a truly magnificent experience.
Perhaps the most famous coffee house in Budapest is the New York Café, located in the posh Boscolo Hotel. The New York is also a mega tourist attraction, and on the day that I stopped by there were no tables available. I managed to hang around long enough to get a good look around and the décor was fittingly decadent. There is a sign near the front door that reads: “Please, pictures are only for those sitting at tables or staying in the hotel.” Of course, not being one of the privileged, I snapped a few pictures anyway. Although the New York Café looked elegant and inviting, it also had an air of pretentiousness one associates with Euro-trash. I beat a hasty retreat.
The Alexandra is a combination bookstore and café. The bookstore carries a small selection of books in English, but the real highlight is the ceiling of the café on the second floor. The ceiling, painted by Hungarian native Károly Lotz, covers the vast room taken up by the café. The entire café feels like an 18th century ballroom. Unfortunately, the ceiling is the best thing about Alexandra. The coffee wasn’t that good, and the service was lousy. The traditional Hungarian cake I ordered was okay, but my first, second, and third choice of cake were unavailable.
The oldest coffee house in Budapest is Ruszwurm, and it dates from 1827. The Ruszwurm is located in the castle district, on the Buda side of the Danube. It inconspicuously sits on a side street almost directly across from Mátyás Church. When I walked in on a late afternoon the place was packed, with a line of people waiting for the dozen or so tables. Only one woman was working, as far as I could tell, and despite the chaos, she looked quite calm. I managed to get inside to take a look around and was disappointed that I did not have the time to longer over a coffee, but my schedule was packed for the day and I had to move on.
The last two cafes I happened to visit were my favorites. One evening, after dinner, I went out in search of something sweet. I stumbled into Café Alibi. This small, dark café is located on the edge of a square just a few blocks from the Kalvin Ter metro station. I took a small table near the back and ordered a pinot noir and something chocolate. Café Alibi is the perfect café one would come with a lover to escape a sudden rainstorm, for a coffee after a movie matinee, or to sneak away with a book.
On my last morning in Budapest I crossed the Danube to the Buda side and strolled along Bartók Béla (in Hungary names are reversed, with the surname coming before). The street was quiet and peaceful. I noticed a few cafes serving and decided to stop in one that looked interesting. I walked into Hadik Kávéház, one of Budapest’s oldest cafes. Inside I was served an outstanding coffee. The wooden tables were covered in lace and the café had a distinctly eastern European air about it. The place was not too busy, but busy enough to listen in on some of the conversations. I spent a leisurely hour people gazing and enjoying the time alone.
The coffee houses of Budapest may not live up to those one finds in Vienna or even Seattle (New York City has long since lost its coffee house appeal with the closing of most independent cafes in favor of an army of Starbucks on nearly every corner), but their presence lends the city a wonderful aroma and flavor that influences its overall character. This is a city that takes its coffee and its coffee houses seriously.