When I heard about Budapest’s cafe history I was in pastry heaven. At one time the city was bursting with around five hundred cafe’s. How I wish I’d been able to see it then, before wars and communism changed things so. The cafes were visited by all and sundry. Ordinary folk, at weekends for a spot of the latest news with coffee and cake; while writers, poets and artists spent most of the day in their favourite spot, chasing the muse. They were freely provided with paper and ink and could partake of the ‘writer’s menu’ (bread, cheese and cold cuts) at a discount price.
There is nothing discount about these grand cafes now. But the surroundings are sumptuous and the cakes divine and if you like a slice of the past with your coffee or tea it’s worth paying a visit to at least one.
Our train arrived from Munich at 09.30. Our Airbnb was not ready until 14.00. What to do? I know – hit our first grand cafe. It was a bit early for cake – even for me, so we chose breakfast for two at Cafe Gerbeaud. ‘Oh wow’, I heard an American woman say as she walked through the door. Now, you might think that, as you stuck your head around the door, flitzed your flashbulb and dashed off; but if you were sitting there, trying to enjoy your breakfast amidst a constant stream of tour groups and food tours you’d probably feel differently. Gerbeaud was not a restful place to sit – but it was grand. The breakfast for two was a good deal compared to the price of the cakes and we happily whiled away a couple of hours among chandeliers, marble table tops, plush curtains – and tour groups.
Ruszwurm, the oldest cafe in Budapest, was a different story. Grand on a human scale. No intimidating high ceilings and cake counters gliding on for miles here. It was cute and cosy, a handful of tables in a back-room, dwarfed by an old ceramic stove. Out front, the original cherry-wood vitrine was crammed with cake. Jim went for the Ruszwurm special, a rich chocolatey melange topped with a glacé cherry, and I asked the waitress what was typically Hungarian. ‘Dobos torta’, she said without missing a beat. They came, we ate, we savoured, we loved. ‘If I was here for a month, I’d come every day and try a different slice’, said Jim. Sissi, (the Austrian Empress and Queen of Hungary liked it too – she sent her courtiers to get her breakfast cakes from Ruszwurm. (Breakfast cakes? Maybe it wasn’t too early at Gerbeaud?)
If Ruszwurm is a favourite pair of shoes, worn, but still well loved, Grand Cafe New York is that killer pair of high heels, that look great but hurt like hell – off kilter. Billed as the most beautiful cafe in the world, it was a jaw dropping concoction of glitz, gold and all that glitters. We queued for a table. We waited to be served. The afternoon tea was dismal, with three poor apologies for sandwiches and the world’s tiniest scones – savoury, but served with jam ‘because some people like it – to spread it – it’s extra, but we don’t charge for it’, the waiter told us when we asked what we should do with it. ‘So these are the scones’, Jim asked, pointing to the threepenny bit sized pastries’. ‘Yes sir’. We looked at each other and tried not to laugh. A triumph of our expectation over their reality. New York was an experience. Go for the atmosphere, not the food. At least not the afternoon tea.
Go once, and then go back to dear old Ruszwurm. On my next visit to Budapest that’s where I’ll be, sitting next to that tiled stove, silently working my way through the cakes, dreaming of Sissi and cakes for breakfast.