The Budapest restaurant scene has been hard hit by the global crisis, in addition to the Hungarian downturn in the economy. The former means less tourism creating a "now you see it, now you don't" situation with some restaurants lasting only 3 months before throwing in the frying pan. Here today, gone tomorrow. The Hungarian Restaurant Association in 2009 predicted that 30% of all restaurants in the country would close. There is nothing I fear more than getting an e-mail from a reader who thinks I did not do my research by suggesting a defunct eatery. Bearing this in mind, I have tried to include those restaurants that seem to be stable enough to continue to exist when you arrive.
Of course, the best part of travel is sampling the culture's cuisine; ample opportunities await to choose either traditional or nouveau Hungarian recipes from these listings. There is a diverse range of restaurants, including some traditional eateries that have negotiated the economic tides over time. Many ethnic restaurants are listed for those who feel the national cuisine has been adequately sampled.
At times you may want to nibble, not wanting a full meal; for this reason, I have also included snack places for a quickie bite.
Most restaurant kitchens close an hour earlier than the posted closing hours of the restaurant, but if a restaurant is open until or past midnight, the kitchen will be closed by 11:00pm. Exceptions are rare.
Something fish-less is going on here: Do take into consideration when ordering fish that this is a landlocked country. Unless it is fish that has come from one of Hungary's rivers or lakes, it is imported and was most likely frozen for shipment. If this is of importance to you, you should question your waiter before ordering. One Hungarian national dish is a particular fish soup, which is also part of the traditional Christmas meal. Most famous among these soup recipes are those of Szeged where fish from the Tisza River are used to prepare it. If you enjoy fish, you will find this item on many traditional restaurant menus.
Food Warning and Allergies: When we ate out for the last edition of this guide, I don't recall finding bacon either explicitly described on the menu descriptions or just implanted in a recipe without warning. This time around, I have been pleasantly shocked at how many dishes, regardless of the main meat, have bacon stuck in there somewhere when the menu did not offer a clue. I love pork of all sorts, but for people with religious restrictions and even vegetarians, you should question the server before placing your order.
An ever-increasing number of people suffer from food allergies, especially the ubiquitous peanut allergy, so for those of you who do, you should keep the following phrase handy when dining. It is purposefully dramatic, since wait staff give little credence to other phrases. Ha bármi mogyorósat eszek, meghalok. "If I eat anything with nuts in it I will die."
Cows and Pigs on the Menu -- Hungary has its own breed of cows and pigs that you will see on some menus. Magyar szürke szarvasmarha or gray cow is a breed that was brought to the Carpathian basin in the 9th century. The Hungarian Mangalica pig breed, characterized by its long curly hair, was developed in the 19th century. It doesn't need any special breeding or feeding, but has fatty meat making it ideal for sausage and salami, but sometimes it is served in cooked dishes. The other pork you will find served in restaurants is wild boar, a little gamier tasting than domestic pork.
Where to Eat -- There are many words used for eateries; few have clear-cut boundaries. Étterem is the most common Hungarian word for restaurant and is applied to everything from cafeteria-style eateries to first-class restaurants. A vendéglo, an inn or guesthouse, is a smaller, more intimate restaurant, often with a Hungarian folk motif; a csárda is a countryside vendéglo (often built on major motorways and frequently found around Lake Balaton and other holiday areas). An önkiszolgáló indicates a self-service cafeteria. Büfés (snack counters) are not to be confused with buffets in English. They are found all over the city, including transportation hubs. A cukrászda is a bakery for pastries and a coffee, while a kávéház is a coffeehouse that generally has a limited selection of pastries. Traditionally, many coffeehouses are places to sit for hours to meet with friends, read a book, or just sit and people-watch. Today, some establishments use the word kávéház in their name, but really are restaurants providing full meals. You will be able to tell the difference if you scope out the menus.
Other establishments you will come across in your travels are those whose primary function is to serve liquor, but some also serve meals or snacks. A borozó is a wine bar; these are downstairs off the street (they are likely to include the word pince (cellar) or barlang (cave) in their name), and generally feature a house wine. A sörözo is a beer bar; these places, too, are often found in downstairs locations. Sandwiches are usually available in borozós and sörözos. Some are excellent places, while others are dives where cheap drinks are served to the less economically advantaged.
Music -- Live Gypsy music is often touted in traditional Hungarian restaurants as a tourist marketing tool. Most often, this is not authentic Gypsy music but a fair imitation for the unbeknownst traveler who can say they heard Gypsy music. One exception is the Mátyás Pince. Chances are a member, or the whole band, will rotate playing a song or two at your table. If you feel uncomfortable or this is disrupting your conversation, politely decline his or her offer to play for you as soon as they approach your table. If, however, you allow them to play, then you have committed yourself to giving them a tip. The appropriate amount varies whether it is one person or more and the price category of the restaurant itself. Giving 1,500 Ft to 2,000 Ft is an example for a single musician.
With the shifting economy over the last couple of years, I have not ducked out from beefing up the budget dining options for when you really want to pork out, but not risk having your bank account go out on the lamb. All jesting aside, I have added more budget food options in this edition.
Hints for a Better Dining Experience
Reserving a table for most Budapest restaurants is almost always necessary. It is not unusual for a table that has been reserved by someone for 9pm to sit empty even if you happen to show up at 6pm. They will not allow you to use that table although there should be ample time to change the linens between guests. Call the restaurant to make your reservation or ask your hotel to do it for you. If you call, speak slowly. To reserve for the half-hour, use the phrase "and a half" -- for example "seven and a half," not "seven-thirty." You will want to avoid the downstairs restaurants in summer months; they can be brutally hot. Almost no restaurants offer air-conditioning, even if it says so on their window. Mysteriously, it is just not working on the day you show up for dinner. Before you order wine, take a good look at the menu. Glasses of wine are priced by the deciliter (dl) and you should order how many decis you want. If you don't, you may receive a full glass of wine with a surprisingly large bar tab. 1 dl = approximately 3.3 ounces.
Fizetek, kérem! = "Check, Please!" & Other Tipping Tips -- One of the glorious holdovers from times past is the ability to sit in any drink or food establishment without concern of being hurried out the door. Unless the doors are closing for the evening, no one will approach you to pay your bill until you signal that you are ready; therefore, you can linger for hours on end. In 8 years, I have only found one exception to this. It is for this reason that the reservation issue described above is such a sticky issue.
Don't be surprised if the person who comes to collect your money is not the person who served you. Many places have a designated cashier who will arrive at your table to collect your money. It may be a few minutes before they arrive, so be patient. Smaller restaurants still have this annoying habit of giving you a small piece of paper with a list of numbers and nothing else to associate them with. If you have questions about it, ask to see a menu to match the charges on the list before you pay or ask the cashier to explain it. If there is a mistake, challenge it and it will be corrected.
Always ask if a service charge is already included. It should show somewhere on the bill, but it is worth asking to make sure. If the service is included, you are not expected to tip. If no service charge is included, add 10% to the bill (15% for exceptional service in high-priced restaurants only -- though note that the waiter very rarely gets a share of the tip). I like to hand the tip directly to our waiter to make sure he receives it. Never leave the tip on the table and walk out.
The cashier will often remain at your table after delivering the bill, waiting patiently for payment. State the full amount you are paying (bill plus tip), and the waiter will make change on the spot. If the restaurant accepts credit cards and you are using one, then the cashier will bring a portable card reader to your table to swipe the card. If you want to add the tip to the charged amount, you need to say so before the charge is processed; it can't be added to the bill later. When I really appreciate our server, I slip some money to him or her privately to make sure the server receives some compensation. During tough economic times, it happens often that when paying by credit card, "suddenly" the credit card machine has died and you will be asked for cash. If you insist that you have no cash and refuse to run to the local bank machine, mysteriously, their credit card machine resurrects from the dead and can handle the transaction. My restaurant friends tell me this is to aid the establishments' cash flow and avoid paying taxes. Don't be part of their scheme if you really want to use plastic.
It is rare the restaurant that will give separate bills to one table. If you ask, they will often say they can until it comes time to pay, then suddenly they can't do it any longer. If you are sharing a bill, you may want to keep note of your charges to make things easier when it comes time to split the bill.
For the purposes of this guide, I have classified restaurants as follows: A restaurant is inexpensive if the average main dish is $10 or under; moderate, between $10 and $20; expensive, between $20 and $30; and very expensive, $30 and over. Bargain meals are becoming a thing of the past, but a few still exist. Having lived here for 8 years, basically living on a Hungarian salary, watching the cost of dining out soar has been inhibiting. However, guests from urban areas with more expensive restaurant meals generally find some menus more reasonable than I do. For this reason, I have tried to provide a wide range of choices to fit any mood and budget. One day you may feel like splurging on a top restaurant, but other days you may want something more moderate.
Credit cards are still not as ingrained in all businesses as they are elsewhere, so check with a restaurant if you need to use a credit card. I have listed the cards accepted at the time of this writing, but things change. Unless otherwise noted in the review, an English-language menu is available in all of the restaurants listed, although it may not be posted outside with the Hungarian menu. Don't hesitate to go in and ask to see a menu before you decide to stay.
For eating on a budget, almost all restaurants now have a day menu or weekly special menu for lunchtime meals under 800 Ft, usually available until 4pm. Sometimes other dinner special offerings are posted either outside or on an inner wall, not appearing on the menu. Ask your server about specials and the cost before ordering, to avoid any embarrassment. If a restaurant doesn't list drinks on the menu, which is rare, feel free to inquire about the price before deciding. Cocktails are extremely costly, while wine and beer are reasonable.
Warning -- The U.S. Embassy provides a list of restaurants that engage in unethical business practices, such as excessive billing, using physical intimidation to compel payment of excessive bills, and assaulting customers for nonpayment of excessive bills. However, it states that this list is not comprehensive. At all costs, you should avoid these establishments. The list includes Városközpont (accessible by outside elevator), Budapest V district, Váci utca 16; La Dolce Vita, Október 6. u. 8; Nirvana Night Club, Szent István krt. 13; Ti'Amo Bar, Budapest IX district, Ferenc körút 19-21; Diamond Club, Budapest II district, Bimbó út 3; and Pigalle Night Club, Budapest VIII district, Kiss József utca 1-3. If a woman approaches you and asks for directions, but then asks you to buy her a drink, red flags should shoot into the air. The embassy cannot offer too much assistance in these situations due to Hungarian laws that are ineffective. Buyer beware.
You can always check the U.S. embassy website for updated information: visit http://hungary.usembassy.gov/tourist_advisory.html.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.