These adorably unsexy, mom-and-pop greasy spoons have been an integral part of Budapest dining for almost a century. But now, they are on the brink of extinction. Go visit them before it’s too late.
Of Budapest’s myriad dining and drinking options, it’s unsurprisingly the fashionable places that get the most attention. You know—specialty coffee shops that brew expert filter coffees, glossy international restaurants with mid-century modern furnishings, and craft beer bars hawking hop-forward IPAs. As much as I also enjoy these trendier types of hopping spots, they may not be what you should prioritize. While these places are surging in popularity, their antithesis—small, humble local eateries—are quickly disappearing. For those who want to plunge into the unknown and experience the truly local side of Budapest: Welcome to an étkezde.
Étkezdes are small, mom-and-pop, lunch-only restaurants in Hungary. They sport less than a dozen tables and serve wallet-friendly traditional dishes from a short, daily-changing menu. Their raison d'etre is simple: fill people’s stomachs quickly with familiar flavors at affordable prices. Étkezdes are plain, decor-deprived spaces—save for the obligatory photos of celebrities who’ve visited over the decades—where customers sit elbow to elbow, sharing a table with strangers. Compared with a regular restaurant, an étkezde is smaller, cheaper, and operates on weekdays only. By my count, only five true, classic étkezdes remain today within the central parts of Budapest, from what used to be dozens in the early aughts.
If a parallel must be drawn, an étkezde is closest to what an osteria is in Italy, though étkezdes don’t serve alcohol. The étkezde crowd is male-heavy and usually consists of an eclectic group of regulars: part blue collar, part low-level bureaucrats, part elderly citizens. Many of them are on a first-name basis with the ever-present proprietor, who often doubles as the server. A common scene at étkezdes: playful banter between customers and the owner, invariably at the expense of each other’s masculinity, cognitive skills, or favored soccer team.
Most of the étkezdés that survived to the current day did so for good reason. Part of their enduring appeal stems from serving tasty homemade staples like chicken paprikash, schnitzel, and cabbage rolls. In addition, there are quintessential étkezde dishes. The most typical is főzelék. It’s a wonderfully creamy stew made from seasonal vegetables—usually peas, squash, spinach, savoy cabbage, lentils, or potatoes—and topped with a meatloaf, sausage, or hard-boiled egg. Lecsó, a ratatouille of sorts packing ripe bell peppers, tomatoes, and crisped-up sausages, is another. People usually round out their meals with a noodle dish like mákos tészta (pasta coated in ground poppy seeds and powdered sugar) or túrós csusza (baked noodles blanketed in sour cream, cottage cheese, crispy specks). Although the menu constantly changes, there are some unspoken, hard-wired routines all regulars are aware of. Fridays, for example, are “offal days” at Kívánság, a charmingly ’80s-looking, longtime étkezde in District 6. Kádár, which opened in 1957 in the city’s Jewish Quarter, serves a classic sabbath dish, cholent, every Saturday (Kádár is an exception by being open on a weekend day).
As you may have noticed, most of these dishes use basic, inexpensive ingredients that are readily available in Hungary; moderate prices are key to an étkezde. In fact, to keep prices low, owners often embrace creative workarounds. “Hamis gulyás,” which translates to “phony goulash,” denotes a meatless goulash soup, prepared with vegetables and egg dumplings (it tastes much better than it sounds). Dishes originally made with beef, like beef stew (pörkölt), can be swapped out for cheaper meats like chicken or pork. A two-course meal will rarely exceed €6, and small-portions are usually available at a reduced price for those who don’t eat much or are on a budget. Given the low prices and the lunch-only service, it’s essential for an étkezde’s survival that it turns tables quickly. This is why wine and beers aren’t served, and lingering, though not discouraged, isn’t common.
The dreadful communist era
It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly étkezdes originated in their current form. They were certainly around already during communism (1947-1989), probably decades before that. During communism—what local gourmands remember as the dark age of Hungarian gastronomy—étkezdes were among the few lines of businesses the state permitted to operate as private enterprises, since mom-and-pop shops posed little threat of dismantling the system. From a quality of dining perspective, it was an ungracious period for étkezdes (and other restaurants, too). With few exceptions, they were serving forlorn-looking dishes made from questionable ingredients and using heavy, gut-busting sauces to mask indistinct flavors. Another common complaint was the cast of enervated and brusque waiters; diners were at their mercy on a daily basis.
Accordingly, as communism was ending and the market opened up for other types of restaurants with more allure and novelty (think Italian and Chinese restaurants, but also McDonald’s and Burger King), many étkezdes quickly folded, usually for good reason. Part of the reason it’s difficult to estimate just how many are still around is that the lines are blurry between étkezdes and similar greasy spoons. Önkiszolgálós are self-service lunch spots while a kisvendéglő also serves dinner and has a drinks menu. My experience is that neither of these usually offer the homey ambiance and homestyle flavors of a good étkezde. To confuse you even more, there are also kifőzdes, an umbrella term used loosely for small, neighborhood eateries.
Vanishing étkezde culture
Alas, if the current trend continues, old-school étkezdes will very soon disappear altogether from Budapest. Last year, étkezde fans across the city shook when Róma, a neighborhood stalwart on the Buda side, abruptly shuttered after more than three decades of service. Its charismatic, raspy-voiced owner, known to everyone simply as “Cica,” and her husband, Attila, both in their 70s, felt it was time to retire. Despite the fact that many étkezde owners are now past retirement age, the next generation hardly feels enthused to fill their shoes. Étkezdes run on razor-thin margins, and they will only turn profitable if the owners themselves also toil away. “By 4:30 in the morning, I’m in the kitchen. What do you think makes my bone broth soup so flavorful?” asks Erzsébet Oláh, who, along with her husband Feri, run the wildly popular Öcsi Étkezde in outer District 8. After 50 years of working in restaurants, Feri says they’ve had enough and decided to put the business up for sale earlier this year. Interest so far has been muted. “No one wants to work hard these days. An office job is just so much more comfortable” he says. Toiling typically avoids the extra cost of hiring a full staff. Tibor Szabados, owner of Kívánság Étkezde, has waited tables at his own restaurant for the past 35 years, while also being in charge of the day-to-day operations. He’s currently 75; one wonders for how much longer he will go on.
Of Budapest’s few remaining étkezdes, my favorites are Öcsi Étkezde, Kívánság, and Kádár. The most nuanced, deeply flavorful foods come out of Öcsi’s kitchen—there, you can’t go wrong with anything. Be sure to arrive by 12:30 p.m., before they start running out of dishes. With its weathered interior, cast of aging regulars, and long-standing staff, Kívánság shows off best what the étkezde genre is about. Finally, even though Kádár has become a tourist-favorite and hence operates with inflated price points, it’s well worth a visit and it’s also the closest to the city center.
Alarmingly, all three of them could easily be gone within a couple of years. Go visit them before it’s too late. Craft burgers can wait.
If you've found this useful, please consider supporting Offbeat. Our content is free, so your contributions go a long way toward maintaining and growing the website.