Traditional Hungarian food is a reflection of the local climate as well as Austrian, Ottoman, Slavic, Jewish, and Romanian influences. While the importance of the goulash soup hasn't diminished since nomadic Hungarians cooked it in cast-iron kettles a thousand years ago — although the ingredients did change — new dishes have entered the culinary mainstream along the way. The places below serve some of the most reliable traditional fare in Budapest, some also with modern twists on the classics.
Rosenstein is an iconic restaurant in Budapest serving traditional Hungarian and Hungarian-Jewish dishes. Tibor Rosenstein, nearing eighty, started this family-run operation, which is located a bit outside the city center and currently helmed by his son Róbert (at lunchtime, Rosenstein senior is often seen chatting away with regulars). Though pricey by local standards, Rosenstein shows off the brightest side of Hungarian cuisine.
Café Kör makes you feel like you've traveled back in time to pre-war Budapest: This snug downtown restaurant is fitted with bentwood Thonet chairs, a carpeted floor, tightly cramped tables, while the kind waitstaff is donning a formal garb. In a city that increasingly prizes international food above its own, Café Kör is a Budapest essential, serving unadulterated, classic Hungarian dishes without twists or updates.
Gettó Gulyás is a cozy Hungarian restaurant inside Budapest's party district, also known as the old Jewish Quarter. The restaurant's name makes its culinary priorities clear — the short menu features the heart of Magyar cuisine with staples like goulash (€5), chicken and veal paprikash (€8-12), and various seasonal vegetable stews called főzelék. "Gettó" refers to the Jewish ghetto, what this neighborhood became during the winter of 1944, the darkest time of WWII in Budapest.
In the early aughts, Liszt Ferenc Square in Budapest's District 6 was a popular hangout for chic locals, but as the wheel of trends turned, people moved on to other pockets of the city. Today, you'll find restaurants emblazoned with "tourist menu" signs and it’s also here that Hungary's only Hooters operated until recently. You don't need me to tell you: proceed with caution.
Although located a bit outside downtown, near the City Park, Szaletly is a so-called destination restaurant, one worth trekking out to. At least if you're curious to try traditional Hungarian dishes transformed with a deft hand by head-chef Dániel Bernát. The whole menu is a celebration of dishes people in Hungary are used to eating, but these beautiful plates made from local ingredients are hardly what appear on most people's dining tables at home.
Curious about the top restaurants on the less traveled side of the Danube? Visit Bobo in Rózsadomb, an exclusive residential area but reachable within ten minutes from Pest. The restaurant's stated mission is to draw Budapest's Bobos (a term made popular David Brook's book, "Bobos in Paradise"), referring to people who harbor both bourgeois and bohemian sentiments. The restaurant is inside a beautifully refurbished 1885 estate, once the playground of the Hungarian aristocracy. The slightly formal vibes and steep price points — mains range €12-16 — put Bobo a step above Budapest's chic bistros, but it’s also more casual than hushed fine dining venues.
Rib-sticking Hungarian fare can be intimidating if you aren’t used to high-calorie dishes like roasted goose liver, Mangalitsa pork chop, and wild boar stew. But if you’re up for the challenge, Kispiac Bistro is the place in Budapest to acquaint yourself with these hefty dishes that used to crowd the dining tables of the local aristocracy. The restaurant sticks to the old recipes, but doing it while using high-quality ingredients.
When in 2017 Szabina Szulló and Tamás Széll (a European Bocuse d'Or winner and celebrity-chef in Hungary) announced they were leaving the Michelin-starred Onyx restaurant to venture out on their own, one didn’t need a business degree to predict success. The idea of Stand25 Bistro was to prove that Hungarian fare can be more than a gut-busting, high-carb, greasy affair. The restaurant's success was immediate: a well-to-do local crowd fills Stand25's tables each day.
In 2004, Bock Bisztró was one of the first Budapest restaurants to give new meaning to Hungarian food following the decades-long decline during the communist era. Owner and executive chef Lajos Bíró showed that contemporary cooking techniques, top ingredients, and a little boldness can jolt the local favorites into the 21st century. That crunchy bits of celery root add welcome freshness to the goulash soup; that paprikash can be wonderful when enclosed in a delicate pastry crust; that a beautifully plated lecsó tastes better than one served carelessly.
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When the hunger for inexpensive Hungarian food hits while you’re in downtown, Tüköry restaurant is one of your best bets. Opened in 1958, Tüköry serves reasonably priced local classics in an adorably weathered space fitted with wooden booths and red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
For an unpretentious and low-priced traditional Hungarian meal, leave behind the tourist-heavy streets of downtown and head to Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő in Újlipótváros, not far from the city center. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths and an exhaustive menu spanning soups, stews, ready-made dishes, and noodle desserts will await you at this highly popular neighborhood restaurant.
Opened in 1994, Király 100 is a traditional Hungarian restaurant a bit outside the city center, lining the historic Király Street. Exposed beams and rafters evoke chalet vibes inside the snug two-story space, perhaps as a legacy of the beer hall that first occupied the premises in 1893 (even today, many people come for beers only).
Tucked away in an exclusive Buda neighborhood, Gyergyó Árpi is a longtime lunch-only family restaurant serving homestyle Hungarian fare. Given the prime location and the elite customers who fill this tiny space at lunchtime — big-time lawyers, businessmen, and upper-middle class regulars — main dishes range €10-15. The restaurant's moniker is a hat-tip to the Transylvanian city where the owner-chef, Árpád Gyurka, hails from.
Rankings are based on a combination of food/drink, atmosphere, service, and price. To remain unbiased, I visit all places incognito and pay for my own meals and drinks. I also never accept money in exchange for coverage. But this means I must rely on readers to support my work. If you've enjoyed this article, please consider making a one-time payment (PayPal) or becoming an Offbeat Patron.
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