New York Café

It happens in many big cities: a decades-old, local's favorite restaurant or café eventually crumbles under the weight of mass tourism. Perhaps some diehard regulars continue their daily visits for a while, but once the sightseeing buses and throngs of camera-wielding tourists emerge, they, too, ultimately move on. The waitstaff becomes rushed and impersonal, no longer interested in offering kind words to the unfamiliar faces. The final nail in the coffin is when the owners raise the prices—who wouldn’t do the same when enjoying unwavering popularity?—rendering the establishment out of reach for locals.

Budapest's New York Café has followed this well-worn path. This opulent café occupies the ground floor of the New York Palace, a grand building from 1894 and once the local HQ of the New York Life Insurance Company (and today home to five-star Boscolo Budapest Hotel). The café's fame harkens back to the pre-war days, when renowned journalists, artists, and entertainers spent raucous nights here fueled by cigarettes and alcohol. Countless stories of their debauchery have become part of Budapest’s collective memory.

The space itself has had its ups and downs. In the early years of communism a sports retail store operated here, selling sneakers beneath the frescoed ceilings. Thanks to a 2006 gut-renovation, however, the New York Café has regained its former glow. Marble columns, bronze statues, and stuccoed angels burst once again from the gilded interior. But the space hasn't regained its native spirit. Today, tourists, packed like sardines, sip on €7 cappuccinos and listen to a live gipsy band perform cabaret music daily between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Despite an engineered experience, you may still want to visit the New York Café to get a glimpse of Budapest's once thriving, now-vanished coffee house culture.