BIGGER, BETTER BUDAPEST
The pop-up shop never closed. Sandor’s designs, which take inspiration from Norse mythology, cater to tourists and a sliver of wealthy, plugged-in Budapesters, the kind who drink single-origin coffee at the nearby Espresso Embassy, a trendy cafe nooked into a cellar-like space. “Initially, coming from Budapest was a bit of a turnoff for clients because people either didn’t know any other designers from here or they had negative associations from Communist times regarding quality,” Sandor told me. “But once they see the clothes, they fall in love, and then being from Budapest becomes a plus because it’s exotic. Who knows what Hungarian fashion is? That’s exciting because I can play a part in defining our aesthetic.”
Another way Budapest is shaping its future is by reinventing its past. The most enduring example of this is the ruin bar. In 2002, a group of young artists negotiated with representatives of Budapest’s Seventh District, the city’s historic Jewish quarter, to take over one of the city’s many heritage buildings that had fallen into disrepair. They made a roof out of tarps, filled the space with found objects—mismatched furniture, a discarded bathtub, an old East German Trabant sedan—and sold cheap beer. Called Szimpla Kert, it gave rise to dozens of copycats, transforming the Seventh into Budapest’s most visited neighbourhood.
Szimpla is still going strong—it now hosts a popular farmers’ market and a film series—but many of the other makeshift ruin pubs have been replaced by more polished bar-restaurants that maintain the open-air, found-furniture aesthetic but have added upscale elements like exposed-filament lightbulbs and professional kitchens. Mazel Tov, one of the newest, is a kind of alfresco Israeli cafeteria with hanging vines and a beachy floor of white rocks. When I visited, it was buzzing with a crowd of short-haul tourists from Paris and Moscow who were sipping fruit-garlanded cocktails or sampling their first shakshuka. Jewish food—whether descended from the Mediterranean or the shtetl — is hugely popular right now in the Seventh District. Food trucks serve knishes stuffed, oddly, with lamb, and serious restaurants, like Macesz Bistro, have become famous for things like latices and ‘Jewish egg’ (chopped hard-boiled egg with duck fat and stewed onions).
This interest in Jewish culture, however superficial, is a welcome development in Budapest, where anti-Semitism has long been an unfortunate reality.