Cafe Society

AT BUDAPEST’S FAMOUS CAFÉS, OLD WORLD CHARM IS NEW AGAIN.

BY JACQUELIN CARNEGIE

Long before “café culture” flourished in Paris and Vienna, it thrived in Budapest. The joy of coffee drinking was introduced by the invading Ottoman Turks in the 1500s, and by Budapest’s Golden Age, between 1870 and 1910, there were some 500 coffee houses in the city.

In their heyday, Budapest’s cafés were cherished rendezvous spots for aspiring writers, poets, artists and intelligentsia of all stripes. People spent hours in their favorite café, sharing ideas and reading the many newspapers and periodicals available to patrons. Before the age of television and the Internet, for up-to-the-minute news and the most interesting gossip, you’d head to one of these cafés.

During this period, the cafés were so central to daily life that when the first early film reels appeared, they were projected on walls in the cafés. (Two eventual film industry giants, director and producer Sir Alexander Korda and Oscar-winning director Michael Curtiz, were first introduced to movies this way. Later on, in Casablanca, Curtiz would recreate Budapest’s café atmosphere on the set of Rick’s Café.)

Most of the classic Budapest coffee houses had sumptuous interiors, plush furnishings, gleaming chandeliers, and high, frescoed ceilings to rival the Sistine Chapel. But, after two World Wars and the Communist era in Hungary, the old famous cafés had been destroyed or closed. In recent years, many of these once-grand cafés have been restored to their original splendor.

NEW YORK CAFÉ  Opened in 1894 on the ground floor of a stylish office complex, designed by architect Alajos Hauszmann and financed by a New York life insurance company, the café (left) was a favorite haunt of the writers and editors who worked in the building (now a five-star Boscolo hotel). For struggling writers, the New York provided free ink and paper and offered a low-cost “writer’s menu” (bread, cheese and cold cuts). During Budapest’s Golden Age, much of the city’s creative business took place here or at the Café Central.

MÛVÉSZ KÁVÉHÁZ  Around since 1898, its name mûvész means artist. Since the café is located opposite the Budapest State Opera House, it has attracted its fair share of artists and performers over the years.

CAFÉ CENTRÁL  Opened in 1887, the Central (right) was a popular meeting place for writers, poets, editors and artists. In the 1890s, writers sitting around the café began an influential literary periodical, A Hét (Week). A few years later, another group of regulars, who divided their time between the Central and the New York, launched Nyugat (West), which became one of the most influential Hungarian literary journals of the early 20th century.

CAFÉ GERLÓCZY  On a leafy square, in a pretty 1892 building, the Gerlóczy has the feel of a Parisian café with its wonderful croissants and freshly-baked pastries—some consider it the best breakfast in town. At night, a harpist adds to the atmosphere. Another unique Gerlóczy offering: 15 stylish rooms in its upstairs boutique hotel, so you never have to leave!

BOOKCAFÉ PÁRIZSI ÁRUHÁZ  This stunning café is located on the third floor of what is now the Alexandra bookstore. The Art Nouveau building, designed by Zsigmond Sziklai, was opened in 1911 as Párizsi Nagy Árúház, Budapest’s first modern department store. The café, in Lotz hall, is resplendent with restored frescos (done by painter Károly Lotz), large mirrors and magnificent chandeliers.

CAFÉ GERBEAUD  Founded by confectioner Henrik Kugler in 1858, this is regarded as one of the most elegant and refined cafés (left). In 1884, its Swiss pastry chef, Emile Gerbeaud, took over the establishment, making it as famous for its cakes as its coffee.