BUDAPEST, Hungary —American coffeehouses are prized for their quick service and fast Internet — ideal for people on the go. But a century ago, European cafes were places to linger amid Gilded Age opulence. Nowhere was this more so than in Budapest, where some of its great historic cafes have survived economic crises, war and Communism.
My wife, Rachel, and my mother-in-law, Edie, had never been to Hungary, but they had been hearing about Budapest and its grand avenues, delicious pastries and vibrant Jewish community all their lives: Edie’s parents were born here in the 1890s. Traveling with us in August on our voyage of reconnection was our infant son, Yair.
Both of Edie’s grandfathers had died in the 1930s — by that time, Edie’s father, Joseph, was already in New England — but her grandmothers lived to see the virulent anti-Semitism of the following decade. They were alive and well when the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941 — until that time, letters could be exchanged — but at war’s end there was no trace of them. Edie remembers her father’s grief upon being informed after the war that they were dead.
It was in search of prewar Jewish Budapest that we visited the vast and spectacularly ornate Dohany Street Synagogue. Built in the 1850s, this Moorish-style complex is where Joseph married Edie’s mother, Louise. Next door at the Hungarian Jewish Archives Family Research Center (www.milev.hu), we made inquiries about the family’s fate, but a search of Jewish community records turned up no new information. In early 1945, the bodies of 2,281 Jews, most of them unidentified, were buried in 24 mass graves in the synagogue’s tranquil, ivy-covered courtyard. Perhaps, we thought (and hoped), this is where they lie, shaded by weeping white mulberry trees.
A quirk of history had made it possible for us, quite literally, to follow the footsteps — and coffee cups — of Edie’s maternal grandfather, Vilmos Balla, a prominent Budapest economist and journalist. He wrote a dozen serious tomes about grain prices, agricultural taxes and other matters of economic import in the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the time, editors and journalists often met — indeed, ran entire newspapers — from tables in their favorite cafes. That’s how he came to write his only book that is still in print, a history of Budapest’s coffee shops, published in 1927 and reissued with vintage photos (and 797 footnotes) in 2008. We decided to reconnect to the city by visiting some of his old haunts.
We found a single copy of Vilmos’ book, “A Kaveforras” (“The Coffee Source”) — on sale — at a bookshop called Alexandra on Andrassy Avenue, Budapest’s Champs-Elysées. Coincidentally, the shop has one of Budapest’s most ornate cafes on its upper floor. In Vilmos’ time, the late 19th century hall, now occupied by Bookcafe Kavezo (kave is the Hungarian word for “coffee”), was part of a Parisian-style department store, so it’s not mentioned in his book about coffeehouses, but the extravagant spirit of his gilded age is present in spades. Unfortunately, the neo-Renaissance murals, the gilded ceiling and the mirrored walls were more dazzling to look at than the pastries were tasty to eat.
The most outstanding cakes we found in Budapest, by far, were those served in a cafe that Vilmos did write about: the Central Kavehaz, founded in 1887. A century ago, intellectuals held court under the soaring ceilings, arguing passionately about the issues of the day. In our time, the Central’s most epic confrontation takes place in silence inside the sparkling pastry case, pitting Budapest’s iconic cake, the multilayered Dobos torte, against its bitter(sweet) Viennese rival, the richly chocolate Sacher torte.
Seated on maroon banquettes at a white marble table, we staged the confectionary equivalent of a heavyweight title fight. For the sake of convenience (and deliciously aware that we were committing sacrilege), we placed both contenders on the same porcelain plate — like having Ali and Frazier stay in the same hotel room the night before the big bout, you might say — but our tiny table was too small for any other arrangement.
The two triangular cakes, edging into each other’s personal space, eyed each other with a mixture of aloofness and loathing. The Sacher torte, the word “Sacher” inscribed on top in looping chocolate script, proudly displayed its two layers of dark brown cake, separated by a thin smear of apricot jam. A pinkie’s width away, the caramel stratum atop the Dobos torte gleamed a transparent orange, contrasting with the dull sheen of its five layers of yellow-white sponge cake, each sandwiched between layers of chocolate buttercream.
Forks were wielded and bites placed gently on salivating tongues. The Contender from Vienna (whose nickname rhymes if you try very hard) was supremely creamy, almost transcendental in its soft chocolatiness. But Jozsef Dobos’ most famous confection, first served in 1885, held its own bite for bite, mixing crunch (the caramel) with a magical combination of sponginess and creaminess. My Hungarian friend Geri gave the thumbs up. “The best Dobos cake I’ve ever had,” he declared. The Sacher torte, on the other hand, encountered some skeptical palates. I loved it, but Rachel pronounced it “kind of heavy” and Edie too was unenthusiastic. The winner, on points, was the Dobos torte. But we all agreed that a rematch was in order.
For something less formal and a bit more ethnic, we headed to the once-heavily Jewish neighborhood just north of the Dohany Street Synagogue. (In Vilmos’ time, almost 1 in 4 residents of Budapest was Jewish.) Our goal was to find the city’s best flodni, a semi-sweet cake whose layers of poppy seed, apple filling, walnut paste and plum jam are separated by thin strata of dough. Flodni could be described as the working-class Jewish answer to the upper-crust tortes of Sacher and Dobos.
At a kosher pastry shop called Frohlich Cukraszda, Edie took one look at the cake case and immediately became nostalgic for her mother’s sour cherry tarts. The flodni, however, left her unmoved; she had never heard of it. As far as we can tell, although her parents were proud to be Jewish, they were as culturally Hungarian as they were Budapest bourgeois, which was very. Flodni, it would seem, was a bit too ethnic for their taste.
Flodni in hand, we headed to Vigado Square, a lovely little park next to the Danube, for a picnic. Dessert, eaten as trams trundled by, was scrumptious.
On our last night in Budapest we decided to have dessert at an establishment to which Vilmos devoted a full seven pages: the venerable New York Cafe, a center of Budapest’s intellectual life from its opening in 1894 until the 1920s. While a pianist softly played melodies by Leonard Bernstein and Simon & Garfunkel, we surveyed both the menu and our over-the-top surroundings: spiral-shafted rococo columns, bulging wrought-iron balconies, chandeliers of crystal and frosted glass and plenty of brass-framed mirrors — great for the baby, who was delighted anew every time he spotted his reflection. Everything that could possibly have been gilded was. If the carriage of Ferenc Jozsef (1830-1916), king of Hungary — a.k.a. Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria — had clattered by, I would have been only modestly surprised.
From the voluminous menu in Hungarian, English and Italian (the cafe now is under Italian management), we ordered what may be the best pastry deal in town: the “Hungarian cake selection.” It included an Esterhazy torte (walnut cake with white chocolate fondant on top), an almond and apple cream pastry called an almaspite and a Dobos torte — but, alas, no Sacher torte, so the epic rematch would have to wait. “That is Dobos!” Edie exclaimed after her first bite. I asked her if she could imagine her grandfather Vilmos hanging out at the New York. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “very definitely. I can picture him talking and joking. He was a man who enjoyed life.” A century later, we were enjoying life too.