Most communist-era eateries are nearing extinction, usually for good reason. But a few are still around, serving homemade Hungarian flavors at almost ludicrously low prices. They are worth checking out, as these are the types of places you're unlikely to find elsewhere.
Róma Ételbár is one of the few remaining communist-era “osteria”: cheap, no-frills, lunch-only eateries once common in Hungary. The dishes at Róma still exclusively revolve around Hungarian classics, as if the kitchen has been vigilantly guarding against lurking intruders of contemporary gastronomy. The Hungarian signature dishes are passable (goulash, beef stew, etc.), but you’re usually better off opting for the daily specials, like the roast goose leg with parsley potato, which often have more character. Prices are higher at Róma than at other similar eateries, likely due to the crowds that line up during lunchtime (some aspect of capitalism did slip through the cracks).
If you wonder what everyday dining was like during communism, search no longer. This Jewish-infused diner in District 7 has been around since 1957, and both the food and the atmosphere still transmit an aura of a different epoch. The stuffed cabbage or the beef stew with egg barley is unlikely to blow your mind, but that's not even the point - you should visit Kádár for the ambiance, rather than the food. The servers wear outfits that could rival the wardrobe collection from Soviet movies in the 1950s.
No ads, no proper Facebook page, let alone an English menu, which in and of itself should spark your interest. This type of diner style self-service/take-out lunch venue was popular during communist times, but by now they are nearing extinction, usually for good reason. However, this one is still standing (since 1985), and so are plenty of people in line at lunchtime for cheap and tasty traditional Hungarian dishes in an amiable and familial environment (all this in the heart of downtown). Note that they're only open for weekday lunch..
Újlipótváros, the neighborhood of Tera Magyar Konyhája, is the best kept secret in Budapest. A city within the city. The cultural upper crust and young families with baby strollers form a strong local community here and make for a lively area. Many of the local residents can be found in Tera, this self-service diner with a broad selection of traditional Hungarian dishes.
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. Nevertheless, a few of the best étkezde have managed to survive amid a stampede of new restaurant openings.Öcsi étkezde, a lunch-only eatery in District 8, has flourished since 1981, in part due to the familial environment created by married owners Erzsi and Feri.
Never mind the fact that Frici Papa opened long after the fall of the iron curtain, this diner has become a darling for visitors looking to experience the dining scenery of communist times. Tablecloths covered with transparent plastic, cheap wood paneling on the walls, waiters dressed as if having been parachuted here from the '80s - those in search of a lost epoch won't be disappointed. The menu includes all the traditional Hungarian staples from goulash to túrós csusza, served in enormous portions. Don't expect a Michelin star kitchen here, but most of the dishes are prepared simply and well, not to mention the almost ludicrously cheap prices.
Neighborhood Roma and office workers alike line up for delicious home-made Hungarian flavors from this bizarrely decorated diner. The interior includes a hodgepodge of items, from countryside wall themes to faux-Biedermeier living room furniture. The checkered tablecloths covered with transparent plastic evoke nostalgia of the 1980s' Hungarian dining scene. Here you can indulge in classic Hungarian dishes including goulash, chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, and főzelék (a popular type of vegetable stew).
It’s not your standard, impeccably refurbished space advertised as “retro” - this is real socialist style. Lángos, a popular Hungarian specialty is the area of expertise at this tiny kiosk located on a puzzlingly neglected square near St. Stephen's Basilica. Lángos is a deep fried flat bread covered by sour cream and cheese, and depending on how adventurous you are, plenty of other toppings like paprika, onions, and bacon - “parasztlángos” is the one to opt for if you want to go all out.
One of the few remaining independent butcher shops downtown, in operation since 1951. Besides the raw meat on display, they serve delicious sausage omelettes for breakfast for €2 (occasionally prepared by the owner himself, resulting in overly generous portions) and various meat-heavy dishes for lunch, including blood sausage and friend chicken liver with a selection of side dishes. Use the opportunity to fuel up here before a full day of sightseeing. The (art) pieces on the walls (Dionysian feast, wild boar taxidermy, etc.) add to the eccentricity of the space.