As in other countries, the dishes in Hungary reflect the local climate and regional influences. While the importance of the goulash soup hasn't diminished since nomadic Hungarians cooked it in large cast-iron kettles over a 1,000 years ago (although the ingredients did change), new dishes have entered the culinary mainstream along the way. The restaurants below serve some of the best traditional Hungarian food in Budapest.
Hands down, Rosenstein Restaurant serves the best traditional Hungarian, and Hungarian-Jewish food in Budapest. Tibor Rosenstein, a legendary figure in Budapest's gastronomy, opened the restaurant in 1996. Today, it's still run by the family, with the kitchen currently being helmed by his son, Róbert Rosenstein. .
Step inside Café Kör, and the atmosphere will immediately transport you back to pre-war, middle-class Budapest. The inside of this homey downtown restaurant features bentwood Thonet chairs, a carpeted wooden floor, and densely packed tables. In a city that increasingly prizes international cuisine above its own, Café Kör is an essential Budapest restaurant that serves classic Hungarian food without twists or reinterpretations..
In retrospect, it's strange that it took so long for someone to finally open a traditional Hungarian restaurant in Budapest's party district (also known as the old Jewish Quarter). After all, most tourists are after local dishes before they hit the neighborhood bars. Gettó Gulyás' moniker makes its culinary priorities clear - the short menu features the heart of Magyar cuisine with staples like goulash, chicken paprikash, and beef stew (pörkölt). These Hungarian classics are updated with small twists, like the baked cottage cheese noodles rolled in bacon that accompany the veal paprikash.
At some point in the early 2000s, Liszt Ferenc Square in District 6 was a popular hangout for trendy and moneyed locals. Then, as the wheel of trends turned, the excitement began to taper off and people moved on to other pockets of the city. Today, you will find signs prominently advertising "Hungarian cuisine" and "tourist menus," and it’s also here that Hungary's lone Hooters operated. You don't need me to tell you: proceed with caution..
Börze is a sleek downtown restaurant serving uncomplicated traditional Hungarian food from early morning until midnight, seven days a week. Börze's moniker is a hat-tip to the enormous, 1907 building across the street that used to be the Budapest Stock and Commodity Exchange. With red banquettes and a chic interior designed to the minute detail, Börze recalls a Keith McNally restaurant. .
For an authentic, traditional Hungarian meal, leave the touristed streets of downtown and head to Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő. Located in the hopping residential neighborhood of Újlipótváros, red-and-white checkered tablecloth and an exhaustive menu spanning across 12 categories (soups, stews, ready-made, etc.) will await you at this popular, no-frills neighborhood restaurant. .
If the hunger for inexpensive Hungarian food hits while you’re visiting downtown's tourist sites near the Parliament building and Liberty Square, Tüköry restaurant is your best bet. Since its opening in 1958, Tüköry’s been serving reasonably-priced and reliable traditional Hungarian staples in a red-and-white-checkered-tablecloths-style setting. Although there exists better Hungarian food in Budapest, I find Tüköry’s pörkölt, made-to-order schnitzel-like dishes (frissensültek) such as the cordon bleu, and the palacsinta desserts (Hungarian crepes) their strong suits. Most of the main dishes are in the €6-8 range.
Hungarian countryside fare can be intimidating for those who aren’t used to eating high-calorie, heavy dishes like pork knuckles or wild boar stew. But if you’re up for the challenge, Kispiac Bistro is the best place in Budapest to acquaint yourself with these hearty, traditional dishes (expect low post-meal productivity). While Kispiac doesn’t try to reimagine old recipes or add new ingredients, it moves past socialist-era kitchen practices and uses high-quality ingredients. .
Gyergyó restaurant, which opened in 1991, disguises itself as a typical greasy spoon (étkezde in Hungarian). In reality, it’s closer to a semi-upscale restaurant when it comes to food, plating, and, unfortunately, prices too. The place’s moniker is a hat-tip to the Transylvanian city where the owner/chef, Árpád Gyurka, hails from. The restaurant is located in an elite, residential Buda neighborhood, which explains why main dishes run €10-15, and why big-time lawyers, businessmen, and retired, upper-middle class regulars fill this small, lunch-only restaurant.
Budapest has too few restaurants located along the Danube River. And even the ones that exist are often content with offering vistas, rather than gastronomic delights. Flanked by endless rows of docked Viking river cruises, Szegedi Halászcsárda (“Fisherman’s restaurant from Szeged”) is one of the exceptions. As its moniker suggests, the restaurant’s specialty is the Hungarian fisherman’s soup, halászlé, especially its famed version from the Southern city of Szeged.
The outer part of the Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút) is much different than the inner side. The Jewish Quarter’s stag-party apocalypse doesn’t reach this far - the streets quiet down as night falls and residents are still mainly locals rather than Airbnb guests. The neighborhood’s mom-and-pop stores and dilapidated buildings remind me of what much of Budapest was like in the 1990s. .
Huszár, named after the famed Hungarian light cavalry soldiers, is the type of restaurant where everyday local Hungarian families may go to for lunch on a Sunday. The restaurant prepares Hungarian dishes without “modern twists” or “updates” to traditional recipes. I enjoy going to Huszár because this unchic restaurant doesn’t try to be more than what it is - an unfussy neighborhood joint. Huszár also satisfies my occasional nostalgia for the type of gruff service and weathered interior that defined Budapest restaurants in the 1990s.
If you’re looking to try traditional Hungarian food in a restaurant away from the crowded downtown streets, Regős Vendéglő can be a good option. Despite its offbeat location, however, the crowd here actually consist mainly of tourists who’ve discovered Regős through TripAdvisor and concierge recommendations, leading to higher prices and less “local vibes” than at similar neighborhood restaurants (main dishes run €8-10). The restaurant, which opened in 2002, occupies a brick-arched underground space decked out in wooden banquettes and kitschy decor. .
Restaurants outside the city center tend to draw a more diverse set of patrons than those in downtown. Tasty lunch can bring together grandmas, office workers, local thugs, and tourists alike. The democratizing force of food is apparent at lunch time in Rákóczi restaurant, located in the outer part of Budapest’s District 8..
Many countries put their own twists on the fish soup, reflecting locally available fish species and ingredients. The fisherman’s soup (halászlé) is Hungary’s take on the bouillabaisse. It has a myriad of permutations across the country, but its most classic version uses carp fillets, and a generous portion of spicy paprika seasoning, which lends it the famed deep-red hue. Oddly, few Budapest restaurants serve fisherman’s soup at all.