You all knew I was going to make this pun at some point – a leopard doesn’t change her spots. Maybe I even had it in my plans before I went to Hungary, because it’s too obvious to not take advantage of. But I had NO IDEA that Budapest was going to be the source of some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. Seriously.
Introduce yourself to modern Hungarian cuisine
I’d had a solo lunch in South Africa, as you may have read about, but my dinner at 21 Magyar Vendéglo (21 Hungarian Kitchen) a few hours after I arrived in Budapest kicked off an entire month of me eating by myself. I couldn’t have asked for a better first date. 21 Hungarian Kitchen’s concept is “Hungarian cuisine as it used to be in the ‘good old days,’ updated to the 21st century.” I started off with a Hungarian handcrafted lager, Fóti Zwickl, which came in a fancy big bottle – and cheers’ed to myself and the upcoming month.
The bread came with a tiny jar of an incredible pork crackling spread, which I slathered on heavily. I then ordered extra bread so I didn’t waste any. I ordered two starters instead of a main, to try more than one thing without feeling full all night: The Hortobagyi style crépe filled with minced chicken (which came in a delicious rich sauce that I didn’t leave a single drip of on the plate, thanks to the extra bread) and a cucumber salad with sour cream (which was exactly what it sounds like and was good, but a little unnecessary after everything else).
21 Hungarian Kitchen, on the quiet Buda side of the river, close to the St. George Residence All Suite Hotel Deluxe, was fancy without being expensive, like most of my meals in Hungary were. You really get value for your forints there.
Eat a 159-year-old piece of cake – kind of
Café Gerbeaud has been on Vörösmarty Square in Pest since 1870, and is just a block from the first location, established in 1858. Because I am 12.5% Hungarian, I wanted to make sure I went to some places where it was entirely possible that my ancestors had been at some point. My ancestors left Hungary in 1901, so I decided that members of my family had been to Budapest at some point between 1858 and 1901 and had eaten at Café Gerbeaud.
I ordered a poppy-seed cake because when my mom’s side of the family gets together, some of whom are 50% Hungarian, there’s always poppy-seed babka on the table. And I ate the whole darn delicious piece and the poppy-seed macaron, apple, and chocolate ribbon on top, hoping that someone somewhere up there knew that I was eating something that they’d eaten 159 years before. I hope that in the year 2176 someone cares enough about me to eat another piece.
Frequent a Communist Cafeteria
Back in the communist era, many eateries in Budapest were cafeteria-style. Menza plays into this décor and cuisine, though it’s updated and a little more upscale than those Soviet coffee shops were. I ordered a beef stew with noodles, which was a staple in my childhood. When I ordered, I had the thought that maybe the tradition was passed down over the years from my mother’s Hungarian grandmother. My mother has since clarified that it was actually passed down from her Polish grandfather who used to make it for the army as a cook when the Panama Canal was being built. Whatever the familial connection, it hit the spot.
Watch Strudel Being Made
At Elso Pesti Rétesház, or First Strudel House of Pest, they’ve been making strudel since 1812 – that’s even longer than Cafe Gérbeaud has been around, so it’s possible my ancestors ate here as well. 205 years feels kind of insane for the age of a restaurant, and the strudel itself is also insane, in taste. I chose raspberry and a seat near the pastry chefs who were rolling out the dough, mixing the fillings, and layering the fillings on the dough. It was fun to watch, but it was even more fun to eat.
Grocery Shop with the Locals
If you want a sense of how the locals shop and what they make for meals, Great Market Hall is the spot for you. You could grab a bite to eat at one of the vendor stalls upstairs, but I was more interested in the grocery part of the hall than the stalls and souvenirs. The huge building feels more like a train station than a marketplace.
The ground floor is where you’ll find the staples, including meats, cheese, produce, goose liver, and spices (especially paprika – Hungary’s signature spice – in any vessel or size you desire).
Upstairs are the lunch stalls and souvenirs – Hungarian lace, painted hollow-egg ornaments and traditional nesting dolls or versions with the Beatles, U.S. Presidents, or communist leaders, if you desire.
If you can stand the smell, the fish market is in the basement, along with the pickled food section, which actually might have been my favorite part. It was quiet and I was surprisingly tickled by the adorable way the pickled food was displayed in the jars. As you can see in the above photo, there were onions, peppers, and who knows what else, cut into the shapes of ducks, chickens, butterflies, and a dachshund.
Drink (or spoon) hot chocolate in a fancy bookstore cafe
In the back of the Alexandra bookstore sits an opulent unexpected room that looks like the ballroom of a palace instead of a bookstore cafe off a main road in Pest. It was here I ordered a hot chocolate, as I wanted a light treat, but was given something closer to hot chocolate pudding. I wasn’t mad about it but it was way heavier than I’d expected and of course, I couldn’t finish it all. This is when it’s challenging to travel solo – when you have to waste food.
Go somewhere you’ve been denied in NYC
I’ve tried a few times to have Sunday brunch at the famed Balthazar, the French patisserie offshoot in SoHo, but it’s always been a ridiculous wait. You know when it’s not a ridiculous wait? When you’re one of the only people staying on the Buda side of the river in Budapest in mid-February. You can even get the whole restaurant to yourself if you wake up late enough. I ordered a very basic breakfast of Avocado Toast and my (now) signature Flat White, but it was perfect. No wonder people wait hours in NYC.
Accidentally treat yourself to a super fancy meal
On my final night in Budapest, I wasn’t planning on anything special, so I found a spot close to my hotel. Little did I know I’d end up somewhere I didn’t quite belong in my best Eddie Bauer pullover. The host at Alabárdos Étterem looked me up and down, paused for a second at my Uggs, and let me in anyway, since the place was almost empty. I sat down and started going over the menu which had two four-course tasting menus and prices I didn’t feel like paying, since I wasn’t even that hungry to begin with. I thought about leaving to find something more simple, but chickened out. I’m so glad I stayed because it turned out to be a really special experience, and not just because they were playing slowed down instrumental versions of my favorite ’90s and folk songs (Theme from Titanic, Killing me Softly, plus all the Simon & Garfunkel you could ask for).
The waitress said it was cool for me to order a la carte, so instead of four courses, I ordered a main, and a local red, Petrený Big Band Egri Bikavér. Even though I hadn’t wanted four courses, I essentially got that anyway. It was one of those places where they bring a basket with tons of different breads and if you’re me, you choose a piece four separate times. The butter was flavored and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. I was then brought “a gift from the chef,” an appetizer with two bites of a meat I couldn’t identify but gave me super high expectations for the main.
My main was the beef tips, with marinated vegetables and potato espuma. What’s espuma? Kind of like a foam, so these were like the lightest, but also somehow the most buttery and decadent mashed potatoes you could imagine. I don’t like vegetables, but the marinated ones they served were the greatest and dare I say, most beautiful?
I wasn’t going to order dessert but everything else was so good, I was easily convinced. At this point I can’t remember exactly what it was – I think the sorbet was cucumber flavored and I forget the flavor of the ice cream wrapped in chocolate, but I do remember that it was delicious – like the level that you close your eyes when you taste it and audibly say “mmm” delicious. You can do that when you’re the only one left in the dining room. I ate it slowly to savor every bite. And then the waitress brought out a bonus dessert from the chef, which I didn’t think I could fit in my belly, but I succeeded – a pistachio white chocolate and a buttery madeline cookie.
For not being hungry, I ate every single crumb, mustard seed, and drop. It was a great way to reward myself for surviving my first solo city of the trip. If you, like me, like to reward yourself with food – Budapest is the place to do it.