As much as Hungarians love to eat, their salaries put many restaurants out of reach. What everyone can afford is whiling away the evening with friends over drinks. I suggest taking a taxi to Fellini Remai Kulturbisztro, a gypsy-caravan-themed riverside bar 20 minutes south of the city centre, where you can sit by the Danube in a faded candy-striped beach chair, drink a froccs, and listen to a cabaret singer as the sun sets. Sinking your hands into the pebbly riverbank, you may feel as if you were nostalgic for this place before ever setting foot here.
Perhaps more than in the other post-Soviet capitals, nostalgia is a currency in Budapest, and Laszlo Vidak could be called its chief financier. After the Iron Curtain fell, he began importing shoes to the city, and was struck by the intense demand for Western goods. “In the nineties, everyone wanted new things, foreign things,” he told me. “And as the borders opened up, many of our Hungarian traditions disappeared. Don’t ask me how, but I knew that this wouldn’t last?’
In 2003, Vidak revived the sneaker company Tisza Cipo, once the country’s largest footwear brand, whose trademark ‘T’ and geometric designs were instantly recognizable to any Hungarian over the age of 15. That same year, he also opened Menza, a restaurant in a tourist quarter off Pest’s grand, central boulevard, Andrassy Utca. The restaurant’s name and design referenced a kind of Socialist-era office canteen, while the menu was based on the type of food your Hungarian grandma might serve during a traditional Sunday lunch. In this swank, retro-chic space, I watched smartly dressed locals tuck into the peasant classics of their childhood. Following their lead, I kept it simple, ordering dishes like boiled beef and dumplings served alongside a white teapot of hot bouillon and a plate of sliced pickles. How ironic, I thought, to see the dreary rations of one generation become the leisurely indulgences of the next.
“The concept was risky, but I think the reason it worked is that people didn’t want to lose what they grew up with,” Vidak said. As Budapest reinvents itself, he believes it’s only natural for it to keep looking to its rich past for inspiration. “Everything comes back. The only question for us is, What form will it take?”