Word of Mouth: Budapest
Word of Mouth: Budapest
A vegan bistro, juice shop, historic hotel and more in this Central European capital
by Alia Akkam
Creative energy has long been percolating in Budapest. Once the Iron Curtain was peeled back, an impressive underground culture erupted that, through the years, has only grown fiercer. While tourists flock to the city to peep at grandiose architecture, knock back beers in ruin pubs and luxuriate in thermal waters, it would behoove them to get to know Budapest on a deeper level—to linger in the restaurants, bars and shops that are painting this Central European capital with a sophisticated sheen. The talented folks behind these establishments are both proud of their roots and open-minded about a future that is organically evolving. Whether it’s by incorporating global influences or reviving rituals of yesteryear, here are some of the newcomers propelling the city’s ascent.
Most inaugural visits to Budapest rightfully include pilgrimages to the Buda Castle District’s charming, medieval streets. It is here that homey Pest-Buda, housed in the building that opened as Hungary’s first hotel in 1696, offers salvation to famished tourists with pots of catfish paprikash and red-and-white checkered napkins. Embracing its rich lodging roots, Pest-Buda has now spawned a swish hotel above the restaurant. Up a winding staircase are the 10 hushed lairs that designer Tibor Somlai adorned with rustic beams, hardwood floors and contemporary accents like freestanding bathtubs in the Atelier suites. There are leather chairs to sink into, graphics-covered walls and brightly hued Smeg refrigerators. But the well-preserved original Baroque roof and floor-to-ceiling windows that magnify the imposing Gothic-style Matthias Church remind guests they are delightfully enmeshed in a centuries-old narrative.
One of the city’s best coffee joints is Kontakt, set in a quiet Pest courtyard. Péter and Anna Bajkó, the passionate proprietors, are just as amped about serving artful, wholesome breakfasts as they are about coffee, so with partner Barbara Beetz, the couple opened the equally diminutive Szimply directly across the way. At home, Anna is constantly poring over international food sites, experimenting with recipes for colorful, vegetable-forward dishes. Szimply—with its soothing blend of white, wood and splashes of metal—illuminates a clean-eating ethos through its monthly-changing menus. Cortados aren’t served here (satiate caffeine cravings afterwards at Kontakt) but the amiable staff is eager to ply patrons with an array of raw, cold-pressed elixirs from Superjuice. They accompany the likes of activated charcoal coconut pancakes topped with avocado mousse and apple juice-sweetened porridge bolstered by amaranth popcorn.
The Velvet Chemistry
Budapest’s 7th District is the epicenter of raucous nightlife. With the arrival of the Velvet Chemistry, the fashionable may soon congregate here as well. The upbeat, white-walled boutique is glamorous, highlighting a mélange of quality Hungarian designs from favorites like Je Suis Belle, USE unused and Abodi of the unicorn-embellished Unisus sweatshirt fame. Gawk at Maison Marquise’s color-blocked dresses, Vanda Ferencz’s geometric earrings and Réka Vágó’s (the celebrated shoe designer’s entire collection is available here) towering ankle-strapped Cara stilettos. Tricked out with industrial lighting and clothing racks, the spare space, punctuated by glass display cases, is reminiscent of an art gallery.
The quartet of outposts comprising Csendes are just moments away from each other, close to University Square. There is the vegan bistro where health-conscious eaters commune over polenta bolognese and coconut-lemongrass chia pudding, and the bar with vintage chandeliers and kitsch-covered walls that instill a decidedly bohemian aura. Come summer, floral Furmint (wine made two and a half hours away) is relished in an intimate garden. In between all this eating and imbibing, Hungarian-crafted goods—throw rugs, tea towels emblazoned with goulash illustrations, saddle-stitched notebooks—invite perusal at A Pesti Szatócs. Do consider returning home with a modernist wooden lamp, bars of fragrant goat milk soap or bottles of plum pálinka, Hungary’s own potent fruit brandy. But it’s the stash of colorful ceramics featuring Csendes’s beloved polka-dot cups that is the star at this general store.
First there was crème brûlée; jars of it uniting such unseemly ingredients as pecan, tonka bean and blueberry. Then came éclairs in a slate of unusual varieties such as blackcurrant and violet. Now it’s the delicate tart, melding, say, lemon, olive and mascarpone, that is the center of attention at Monofu. Pastry chefs Domi Lovász and Évi Märcz opened their petite Buda bakery, a tranquil space strewn with greenery and pops of yellow, as a distinct pop-up-inspired concept: showcase just one dessert, in a plethora of interesting flavor combinations, until it’s time for another confection to get the spotlight. Quenching ginger-infused water, luckily, is a permanent fixture.
Frustrated by Budapest’s barrage of slick, cookie-cutter wine bars, Imre Balázs Molnár coveted the ambience of the bygone borozó. In tribute to these laid-back pre-Communism hangouts the oenophile dreamed up Cintànyèros in a residential neighborhood that is a 15-minute walk from the must-see Art Nouveau masterpiece, Museum of Applied Arts. Its name, translating to “cymbals,” refers to the lids covering the house wines Molnár stores in 10-liter tanks fitted into the bar. In the past, they would simply be ladled into glasses and carafes, a tradition he continues to uphold. The minimalist bar attracts locals seeking a mezzanine perch for perhaps Merlot from Hungary’s notable Szekszard wine region and a just-grilled order of paprika-laden Debrecen sausages. A 100-year-old piano flaunting real ebony and ivory keys only heightens the old-fashioned feel—especially when the pianist enraptures with weekly mid-century jazz performances.
Images courtesy of respective venues