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A Sip of History in Budapest : Ornate Coffee Palaces Capture Essence of Hungary’s Political and Artistic Past, Present

<i> Andrews is author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum) and "Everything on the Table," to be published next year by Bantam Books. </i>

The great French film director Jean Renoir once proposed that, “All great civilizations have been based on loitering.” Turn-of-the-century Budapest was undeniably the center of a great civilization: With Vienna, it was one of the twin capitals of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and was a veritable hotbed of creativity in the arts and sciences--home to such shapers of the 20th Century as Bartok, Molnar, Theodore Herzl, Arthur Koestler, Marcel Breuer and the physicists Leo Szilard and John von Neumann, among many others. And in its multitude of coffeehouses--there were said to have been almost 600 of them in Budapest by 1900--it was a city that raised loitering to an art and a science.

Budapest is today a troubled city, economically chaotic, rife with unemployment, uncertain of its future--a faint if still well-formed shadow of its former self. But it has not lost its love for coffee, for the light but complex pastries that inevitably accompany it or, certainly, for cafe life. To experience this quintessential part of Budapest’s personality, there may be no better time than in the fall, when the recent touristic hysteria for Eastern Europe has abated, at least temporarily, and cafes promise warmth and nourishment particularly appropriate to the encroaching coolness of the season. The best place to begin might be Gerbeaud.

This legendary cafe and pastry shop takes up one whole end of the handsome, ever-bustling Vorosmarty Square, and is permanently abuzz with a polyglot of assorted Western European businessmen and (comparatively) well-to-do locals. Sitting in the autumn sunlight on cane-back, wrought-iron chairs beneath bright yellow umbrellas, watching the lively square, they sip strong coffee or hot chocolate or aromatic tea, while munching almond crescents, praline beignets or one of the fancy dessert-style, cream-filled cakes or pastries for which Gerbeaud is famous.

Gerbeaud isn’t all there is to Budapest, of course. But it is resonant with the cosmopolitan spirit of the city’s glorious past--its sense of style, its social energy, its appreciation for good conversation and good food and drink--and seems to promise that good times will come again to this once-elegant metropolis.

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Coffee was introduced to Budapest--or rather, to what were then the separate cities of Buda, Obuda and Pest (united into a single municipality only in 1872)--by Ottomaninvaders in the 16th Century, more than a century before it reached Paris or Vienna. Coffeehouses, devoted to the consumption of this new beverage--at first considered rather racy, if not downright subversive, by some of the local citizenry, but (or maybe thus ) embraced heartily by the rest--appeared almost at once. By the late 19th Century, these establishments had become important literary and political meeting grounds, and had become quite specialized.

The New-York, for instance, was primarily a literary cafe--the waiters even handed out writing paper to suddenly inspired scriveners--though it drew artists, musicians and some of the theater crowd as well. The Japan was mostly the preserve of painters, sculptors and architects. The Fiume attracted politicians, the Abbazia businessmen and journalists, the Sodi university professors, the Lloyd stockbrokers and bankers. And at least one coffeehouse apparently attracted political troublemakers as well: The Hungarian-born American historian and critic John Lukacs, in his splendid book “Budapest 1900,” notes that he knows of only one instance anywhere in Europe “when a great national revolution literally started from a coffeehouse, from the Cafe Pilvax in Pest on the morning of March 15, 1848, Hungarian Independence Day.”

Unfortunately, only one of the famous old turn-of-the-century coffeehouses has survived until today: the Hungaria, known in pre-Communist times (and sometimes now known again) as the New-York. Besides the Hungaria, though, Budapest still has a number of attractive gathering places in which the civilized persist in loitering over coffee and a taste of something sweet--including smaller cafes, historic pastry shops (the aforementioned Gerbeaud, for instance, founded in 1858 and taken over by Swiss pastry chef Emile Gerbeaud in 1884) and a newer class of places called eszpressos-- and these establishments can be highly recommended to any visitor who wants to get a real taste, literal as well as figurative, of Budapest, both old and new.

The Hungaria itself is a must. Opened in 1894 (as the New-York) on the ground floor of an elegant four-story neo-Renaissance apartment complex (also called the New-York), it was designed by Alajos Hauszman--a prominent Hungarian architect of the period who, slightly later, was to supervise the reconstruction of the Varpalota or Royal Castle Palace on Buda’s Castle Hill.

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The interior is a frenetic but often breathtaking mishmosh, in a style that might be called Art Nouveau/Baroque/Eclectic. There are terrazzo floors, marble-topped tables on hammered brass pedestals, curious moss-green chairs with backs mounted like tiltable swing mirrors on old dressers, elaborate rococo-style frescoes on the ceilings, banisters and balustrades and Bernini-esque spiral columns everywhere--some of this obscured today, regrettably, by plastic planters, ugly red saddle-style bar stools, cheap-looking imitations of fin-de-siecle light fixtures and other such exigencies of the Communist period. The overall effect is one of extravagance, of excess--and to imagine the place filled, as it once was, with all of glittering pre-war Budapest, is almost mind-boggling.

John Lukacs notes that the place was divided into territories in the old days: Writers and journalists sat on one side, artists and assorted intellectuals on another, aspiring actresses and “young women of light virtue” on another still. Habitues of the New-York before World War II included composer Franz Lehar, conductor Eugene Ormandy, film producer Alexander Korda and director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”).

Today, the clientele seems to include everything from slow-moving ancients of the neighborhood to students and tourists to government officials. It is perhaps a bit too “downtown” for artists and writers. The coffee is excellent, though, and there is a good selection of wines and liquors (including a credible Irish coffee). Breakfast--breads and rolls, juice, coffee with milk--is served in the cafe, and there is a full-scale restaurant, which gets mixed reviews, downstairs in an atrium.

The most famous street in Budapest for coffeehouses in the old days was the two-mile-long boulevard called Andrassy Ut, which stretched from the Varosliget or City Woodland Park almost to Vorosmarty Square--and under which ran the first subway line on the European mainland, its terminus directly, and conveniently, in front of Gerbeaud.

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A few notable cafes and patisseries remain on the street. One of these is Lukacs (no connection to the writer mentioned above), rumored to have been a favorite hangout for the Hungarian secret police in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but certainly anything but threatening today. Don’t be discouraged by the scattering of tacky-looking tables out front, or by the cold, bank-lobby-style front room. Stop there just long enough to pick out a confection or two, supplied by Gerbeaud’s bakery--a flaky Napoleon filled with slightly sour cream, a rich coffee-flavored torte, a selection of marzipan fruits--then head to the right and up a short flight of stairs to the elegant baroque-accented salon with its gilt ceilings, crystal chandeliers and display of antique china. Here, elderly matrons sip tea and young men from the foreign embassies nearby nibble sandwiches, and the pre-war years seem not quite to have passed at all.

Some blocks away on the same boulevard is another delicious older cafe/ patisserie, Muvesz (artists). Here, too, the pastries come from Gerbeaud--though they seem to taste more delicate somehow than those at Lukacs, perhaps because this cafe’s small, rather Parisian-looking back room--with its mirrors and little marble sculptures--seems more genteel than the former’s more imposing salon.

On the other side of the Danube, up on Castle Hill--the tourist center of the city, with its ancient royal palace, rich museums and collection of beautiful 17th- through 19th-Century houses--is a little jewel box of a pastry shop called Ruszwurm. Opened in 1827, on the site of a cafe said to have stood on the spot as early as the 1500s, Ruszwurm is tiny. The front room offers a small display of wonderful pastries made in-house (try the Austrian apple strudel, the hazelnut torte, the special Ruszwurm cream torte or the rigo jancsi, a chocolate torte filled with jam) and a vitrine filled with old glassware and turn-of-the-century confectionery boxes and ornaments.

The back room, which has only seven tables, a single banquette and about 20 chairs, is classic Biedermeier in style, with dark rose marble floors; garlands of dried flowers draped over doorways; a few gold-framed genre paintings; a bentwood hatrack; a gilded chandelier; an old, tall, off-white ceramic heating stove, and green chairs with floral stripes. So handsome and coherent are the surroundings that you might almost be sitting in an exhibition room in the Budapest Historical Museum on another part of Castle Hill. In a museum, though, you couldn’t get these delicious pastries, or a glass of Ruszwurm’s excellent Tokay.

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Perhaps the nicest of the newer eszpressos is the simple but elegant Angelika on the rather shabby Batthyany Square in the Vizivaros or “water town” section of the city, between Castle Hill and the Danube. Opened in 1973 on the site of an 18th-Century adjunct to the famous St. Anne’s Church just next door, Angelika is very calm, very much of a piece, with hardwood floors, whitewashed coved ceilings, lots of dark woodwork and deep green upholstery, and plain but pretty leaded-glass windows framed in coppery yellow glass. The banquettes are unusually comfortable, and tables are spread widely around a series of large rooms. The coffee and ice cream are superb here, the pastries are middling and the beer and cocktails flow freely.

Writers and performing artists are said to frequent the place, but there’s nothing self-consciously “intellectual” about it. Angelika just seems like the sort of place you’d like to come with friends, to talk and share a glass or two--and maybe, if you’re inclined toward this sort of thing, to muse about what Budapest has become since the beginning of this century, and about what it might well become again before the century is through.

GUIDEBOOK

Coffeehouses of Budapest

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Recommended coffeehouses, cafes and patisseries of Budapest:

Angelika, Batthyany Ter 7

Gerbeaud, Vorosmarty Ter 7

Hungaria, Lenin Korut 9

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Lukacs, Andrassy Ut 70

Muvesz, Andrassy Ut 29

Ruszwurm, Szentharomsag Utca 7

Most are open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., give or take an hour in either direction. A plain espresso-style coffee costs from 50 cents to $1, with pastries and other confections priced from about 30 cents to $1.40 (at the exchange rate of approximately 63 forints to $1).

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