Coffee Houses in Budapest – a Winter’s Tale

Von Michaela Preiner

New York Cafe (c) European Cultural News


January 2016
In our 3-part series offering culinary tips for a short break in Budapest, we start with a small overview of the city’s most traditional coffee shops.
If you’re heading to Budapest, you can safely leave your car at home, because the public transport network is dense and the intervals are short. At the same time, you save your nerves when looking for a parking space in the city centre, because it is completely parked. Budapest offers the whole range of accommodation options, from luxury hotels to very cheap apartments in the middle of the city.

There is a lot to see and especially in winter, when you can’t sit outside, you like to interrupt your city explorations with a hot drink and a pastry in one of the numerous coffee houses. But if you go to Starbucks in Budapest, it’s your own fault. Because, comparable to Vienna, there is a large selection of really nice locations with a fascinating patisserie offer. And some of the premises are truly breathtaking.


Our top recommendation: The Coffee Müvész

Not far from the opera – about two minutes’ walk away – is our absolute favourite. Café Müvész at 29 Andrássy ut. Founded in 1898, it offers its guests a really nice and cosy coffee house atmosphere in two rooms one behind the other. In the small porch, a mulled wine pot was simmering away in the cold days of January. In the first room, the large, mirrored bar is impressive, but even more so are the two showcases with the range of cakes and pastries. The rotating cake etagères show confectionery art at its best. Poppy-seed cake filled with sour jam, caramel cream cake in two variations, Sacher cake in the style of Alain Ducasse – filled with chocolate cream, Esterhazy slices, Dobo cakes, marzipan cakes and so on. Because we were so impressed, here’s a video summary in which only a small part of the sweet delicacies can be seen.
The service is quick, extremely friendly and nobly styled; completely in the Müvész look in black, with golden ties, both for the ladies and the gentlemen. The bakery adjoins the second guest room and opened frequently during the two hours we spent there, as staff constantly brought fresh cake supplies to fill the display cases. Unlike the much more famous Gerbeaud coffee house, the Müvész, which also calls itself “The Little Gerbeaud” in its menu, is mainly frequented by locals.
The friendly service in the coffee Müvész (c) European Cultural News
One thing right away. The Müvész is much smaller than the Gerbeaud on Vörösmarty tér. However, the selection of cakes, as well as snacks – starting from breakfast to hot dishes and salads, is much larger at Müvész. The historic ambience and subdued lighting give the impression that time has stood still in this place. However, the range of traditional and contemporary patisserie on offer shows that both heart and mind are at work here at the same time to ensure that guests are completely satisfied. There are much more impressive cafés in Budapest in terms of ambience. But nowhere did we feel so comfortable and were so convinced by the selection.

The poppy-seed cake was moist, with wonderful fine layers of tart jam, and the caramel cake not powerful at all due to the fluffy caramel cream. If we hadn’t also had dinner planned, we would have each treated ourselves to another tart.

And the prices are also much more moderate than in those coffees we still visited. Amazing, because the quality was much more convincing than elsewhere. Following the trend of the times, there is now a second branch. Also in Andrássy ut, a few hundred metres further out of town on the opposite side of the street, Müvész also offers a lounge-style location. Glazed on both sides, the restaurant is bright and friendly and furnished in the taste of a young, urban audience.

The “Book Café” – a “must see” in Budapest


Just a few steps away, at 39 Andrássy ut, in what was once Budapest’s oldest department stores’, is the Book Café. It takes its name from the fact that it is housed above the second floor of a bookshop. From the outside, however, nothing of this can be seen.
The bookstore “Alexandra”, which exists several times in Budapest, certainly benefits from this coffee, because everyone who wants to go there inevitably has to pass by the many book shelves. Personally, I can’t imagine a nicer combination, even though the selection of foreign-language books is rather small. In the coffee itself, a sign at the entrance asks you to wait for the staff to take you to a free table. This makes sense, especially at peak times when many guests want to visit the coffee. If there are no more seats, then you have to wait, but it is not possible to look around the spacious, historically furnished hall. However, when the rush is over, the sign is removed and you are allowed to choose your own table. A large selection of freely available newspapers and a pianist offer further opportunities for distraction in addition to the epicurean delights. But actually, it is enough to devote oneself entirely to the ambience itself.
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The ceiling is decorated with numerous paintings by Károly Lotz and one never tires of looking at them. Originally, the stunning hall was used as a ballroom, which one can still imagine very well today. Lotz was called the “prince among Hungarian artists” in his time and his paintings can be found in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, which is still closed for renovations until 2018. A small side note: Lotz became dean of the newly founded “Painting for Women” department at the Academy of Arts in Budapest in 1885. A once revolutionary step towards equality.
In addition to the traditional range of cakes, a display case with snacks also beckons. Both the Dobos and Esterhazy cakes we consumed were good, but they still lacked that tiny little something that makes these cakes so irresistible. However, with the hot drinks – such as a whole range of flavoured coffees – the coffee picked up plus points with us again. But honestly: We would go again just because of the wonderful hall. The staff – young and dynamic – were courteous, quick and attentive. In summer, the roof terrace is also open. Surely a great alternative, because from there you are supposed to have a wonderful view of the city. The large numbers of mobile phones, with photo functions, held out in every conceivable direction, made it clear that at least half of the guests were tourists.

The “New York” coffee – you can’t get more ostentatious than this in a coffee house


On the ground floor of the Boscolo Hotel, at Erzsébet körút 9-11, is the “New York” restaurant and café. In terms of architecture, it may compete with the “Book Café”. The difference: the New York is divided into several rooms and several levels. The pomp is even greater – more gold and more marble, more stucco and more columns. The hotel, restaurant and café were only reopened a few years ago after a long period of renovation.
New York
The culinary offer is very different from that of a long-established Budapest house. Here they offer patisserie that you could just as easily find in Strasbourg or Paris. Small, sweet creations, elegantly arranged, with a price to match. The only downer is that there is nothing sweet here for less than 8 euros. However, everything we consumed was to be recommended. A hemisphere-shaped cream dusted with pistachio powder, filled with crispy inside, had green, sweet, edible moss and spiced sour cherries on its side. Not only great for the palate. The “Rákóczi”-style curd cake is accompanied by apricot ice cream and the Hungarian hazelnut cake lived up to its main ingredient in terms of taste.

As in the “Book Café”, a pianist provides background music. But always in such a way that you can easily have a good conversation on the side. During our late visit – it was already after 10 p.m. – we heard the waiters serving us exclusively in English. An indication of purely international guests who did not want to miss out on this surround-sound experience. The Internet page of Cafe New York is called “the most beautiful café in the world”. And what must not be forgotten: it is probably the only coffee in Budapest that is open until midnight every day. So it’s a great place to end the evening after a visit to the opera or a concert.


The classic in Budapest: The Gerbeaud


So far, there hasn’t been a visit to Budapest without a little detour to Gerbeaud. The big house on Vörösmarty tér always attracted us with its fantastic cakes. This time, however, we were a little disappointed. Maybe it was because we were assigned to a very draughty table near the entrance. Maybe because the coffee tasted anything but good. Maybe also because the range of cakes on offer when we visited the coffee house on Fridays at 5.30 p.m. was very manageable. Even the small works of art in the display case, which you could buy complete as a take-away for home, were of no use.
The macarons piled up into a cone were wonderful to look at, but can now be bought around the globe. The range of chocolates and other chocolaty products is a nice and exclusive souvenir from Budapest. But rather unsuitable for tasting on the spot. Maybe we were just unlucky that day as far as the selection is concerned. Unfortunately, the menu with a total of 12 cakes, which is available on the internet, was not offered to us, the showcase seemed almost cleared out. We then decided on a Gerbeaud slice with walnuts and apricot jam, which was nice and moist and chocolaty, and a Dobos cake with a wonderfully crispy yet light caramel lid. Just as it should be.

The delicious coconut hot chocolate was spiked with coconut shavings. Locals picked up patisserie to take home from the counter, but in the rooms themselves we didn’t hear a Hungarian word at any table. The waitress was very courteous and polite and spoke fluent English. Conclusion: What we consumed was very good – except for the coffee, which tasted sour without milk. However, we would have liked a wider selection.

The coffee houses in Budapest, at least the ones described here, are worth a trip to this beautiful city on their own. What else we discovered there in terms of gastronomy, we will report on shortly!

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