Traditional Hungarian cuisine is a reflection of the country’s nomadic past. After all, goulash means herdsman, named after the people who used to eat it. But what people think of today as Hungarian cuisine is also an adaptation of the French culinary traditions, adjusted by the cooking practices of Hungary's neighboring countries and minority communities who lived in Hungary for centuries. Think Austrian (schnitzel), Ottoman/Balkan (stuffed cabbage), Transylvanian (kürtőskalács), and Ashkenazi Jewish (cholent) influences.
Bear in mind, as you screen for seafood on the menu, that Hungary is a landlocked country. It doesn't mean that you can't find outstanding grilled shrimp cocktails these days, but dishes with freshwater fish, like common carp, catfish, or perch, are more prevalent.
Over the last five years nothing short of a gastronomical revolution has been initiated in Hungary, particularly in Budapest. Although we still love goulash and chicken paprikash, healthier food and smaller portions (and slimmer menus) are becoming more widespread. "New-wave" restaurants generally blend traditional Hungarian flavors with contemporary international culinary techniques, using fresh local ingredients which were once impossible to find but are now more readily available. To experience the best of modern Hungarian cuisine, try any of these restaurants. If you're more interested in old-school Hungarian cooking, then Café Kör is your spot (see our toplist of the best traditional Hungarian food options in Budapest here).
Italians have their osterias, the French their brasseries. In Hungary, no-frills eateries whose main purpose is to fill your stomach with familiar flavors at affordable prices are called "étkezde". They belong to a bygone communist era, and many trendy people avoid them like the plague. But they shouldn't. A few of the best étkezde have managed to survive amid a stampede of new restaurant openings, and usually for the right reasons.
To evoke the experience of dining in socialist Hungary, Városház Snack, Róma Ételbár, and Öcsi étkezde each retain the atmosphere and general food offerings of that epoch (Kádár Étkezde does too, but it's overrun by tourists).
Four Michelin-starred restaurants operate in Budapest (more than in each of Prague and Warsaw). If you fancy such a decorated establishment, the ones in Budapest will likely be among the most wallet-friendly options. Our favorites are Borkonyha and Costes Downtown because of the relatively laid-back atmosphere, but the other two (Costes and Onyx) each offer their own unique gastronomic experience as well. Additionally, Budapest has 2 restaurants with Bib Gourmands, a Michelin award provided for exceptional food at moderate prices: Petrus, and Fricska Gastropub. As for Gault Millau, in 2017 they rated a total of 15 restaurants in Budapest with 15 points or above.
Food Courts and Street Food
The Hold Street market hall was gradually transformed into a popular food court that features a plethora of options for a tasty lunch. These eateries are run in a self-service manner by some of the leading chefs in Budapest (e.g. Lajos Bíró). I recommend particularly the ratatouille sausage with onions and mustard at Séf utcája and the enormous (pork) schnitzels at Buja Disznó(k). The market hall itself, a recently renovated 19th century steel structure erected during the "glorious days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire", is worth a visit.
The Anthony Bourdain-visited Belvárosi Disznótoros is operating at a different location but in similar vain, serving all Hungarian essentials in a downtown eatery.
Food trucks and carts have steadily begun to emerge on the streets of Budapest. Being clean, using quality ingredients, and taking their time to prepare the food, they tend to be a bit more upscale than one may have previously experienced, but aren't meaningfully cheaper than regular restaurants (a dozen or so food trucks are parked inside a courtyard called Karaván on Kazinczy street near Szimpla ruin bar and happily serve the crowds of tourists passing by).
The international food scene in Budapest is dominated by cheap, low-quality gyro joints. The expansion of these self-service/take-out type of eateries across the city appears to be unstoppable, but you will do yourself a favor by not visiting any of these (the notable exception being Gyros Kerkyra).
On the higher end of the international food scene, there's a growing group of restaurants which work to meet the standards of serious gastronomes. Italian places are most prevalent (see the list of best Italian restaurants in Budapest), but exceptional Japanese (Nobu, Komachi), Indian (Curry House, Indigo), Spanish (Padron), and Slavic/Balkan (PolaPola) flavors can also be found in Budapest.
The Chinese gastro scene in Budapest is deceiving because, the city is teeming with uninviting but economical buffet-style Chinese restaurants, offering dirt-cheap food of questionable sanitary conditions. Ironically, the food at these joints is often adjusted to meet local preferences by adding hot paprika to the flavoring.
There do exist, however, outstanding Chinese restaurants located in unexpected parts of the city (“the farther from downtown, the better”, appears to be the rule of thumb). Many are in Monori Center, a long stretch of wholesale stores in District 10 run by Chinese business owners. Accordingly, these restaurants cater to local Chinese tastes, just like the hole-in-the-wall eateries buried deep within the Chinese market on Kőbányai út.
While most of Hungary's c. 20 thousand-strong Chinese community hails from Zhejiang and Fujian provinces on the southeast coast of China, the food offering includes staples from the entire country, with a particular fondness of Sichuan heat.
Finally, a note of caution: Chinese dinners generally start on the earlier side (around 6 PM), so, for the fullest experience, plan accordingly.
For those unable to rid themselves of the urge to visit a fast food chain while here, make sure it's the McDonald's located inside the stately 19th century Nyugati train station built by the Eiffel Company - yepp, the same Eiffel who built the tower. Little of the marble pilasters, oversized windows, and ornate ceiling decorations will evoke the experience that's normally associated with cheeseburgers and french fries.