As a true blue Penangite who loves his food and has unlimited tolerance for unsavoury surroundings, I decided to head the other way on my recent trip to Hungary’s capital, Budapest.
I booked my table, at least two weeks before my departure, at what has been billed the world’s most beautiful café.
The website states clearly that it’s a café and not a restaurant. Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the menu to bowl me over.
I did further research to see how previous guests had rated the New York Café, and many were brutally frank, rating the food and services as average, and expensive. However, almost everyone agreed that it was indeed the most beautiful eatery.
And I think that’s the best part of being a digital-age traveller. You can plan and read up on your travel details and destinations, assess a variety of views, make a conclusion and then visit your destination with realistic expectations.
Armed with the reservation notice on my mobile phone, I arrived for dinner at the cafe only to be greeted with a long queue of guests in front of me.
Almost everyone had made their bookings, and although I had arrived earlier, it was made easier for the staff to accommodate me immediately, at a corner table with a street view, because we were only a party of two – my wife and I.
But it was not just the stunning and spectacular design of the café that I wanted to see – I also wanted to simply soak myself in the ambience.
I closed my eyes and let my imagination run wild as I pictured what it would be like at the end of the 20th century at the New York Café, with the chatter and sounds of the time.
It would have been a privilege to be in the company of writers, poets, journalists and thinkers, who frequented the place, located on the Erzsébet körút section of the Grand Boulevard in Budapest.
The city’s most influential newspapers were edited right upstairs, at this prestigious building, named after the headquarters of the New York Life Insurance Company.
It was the home of several famous Hungarian literary figures. According to an article, back then, lesser-known and poor writers could even get access to the “writers’ bowl” for a small fee, thanks to generous donors who supported the world of literature.
The grandiose eclectic building is the work of architect Alajos Hauszmann, who was commissioned to plan the Italian Renaissance styling, and did so with the assistance of Flóris Korb and Kálmán Giergl, who designed the lavish, four-storey building with the café on the ground floor.
But after World War II, it fell into disrepair, and even served as a sporting goods shop at one point. Although the café reopened in 1954, under the name of Hungária, it wasn’t until 2006 that the New York Café was restored to its original splendour, as part of a 107-room five-star luxury hotel, by the Italian Boscolo Hotels chain.
Today, guests take their time to look up at the artwork on the ceilings of the café, and to marvel at the statues and other ornaments on the facade of the building.
As I busied myself taking the pictures for my Instagram, and to record the video to accompany this article, I almost forgot the other reason for coming here – to eat.
The Hungarian-Italian-American menu offers classic dishes like beef goulash, fisherman’s soup, chicken leg paprikash-style, wiener schnitzel and grilled foie gras. Burgers are also served, along with famous desserts such as Dobos, Sacher and Eszterházy cakes.
Goulash is a soup of meat and vegetables, usually seasoned with paprika and other spices, which originates from medieval Hungary and is a popular meal predominantly eaten in central Europe, but also in other parts of the continent.
You can’t claim to have visited Hungary without having eaten the country’s national dish, and I am constantly reminded about it symbolising the place. I was also told a hundred times that it’s not a stew but a soup.
Basically, the goulash is what the char koay teow is to a Penangite. The de rigueur is to say it tastes “really good”, “incredibly fantastic” and “I can’t have enough of it”, even though my mind had already strayed to images of nasi kandar and assam laksa after 10 days in Europe.
But I was at the New York Cafe, so I had to stop acting like a peasant, and instead, be a well-read writer who wanted to immerse himself in the elite culture of 20th century Hungary, who will be editing the most influential newspaper greeting the eyes of Europe’s elite.
So, I obediently settled down for a, well, goulash, and proclaimed on my video that it was simply superb, like a good guest in Hungary.
My wife opted for an American burger, but soon asked me if I had brought along my bottle of chilli sauce from Malaysia for her “fries”. I didn’t disappoint her – I had two – the Life brand and the chilli padi sauce from Melaka.
She ordered a foie gras, with green apple, which was pretty good, while for the main course, I picked roasted duck breast with blackberry puree.
To wrap up the night, we decided on two cups of coffee, like what the literary figures would have done back then.
The bill came up to about 98 euro, or RM456, inclusive of service tax – which was surely very expensive, so we didn’t leave tips because there was practically no service at all from the waiters. We had to wave frantically for the menu, and repeated that performance for the bill.
The comments on TripAdvisor were right – the service and food suck, to put it bluntly, but I hate to say this – you can’t visit Budapest without visiting the New York café, without trying the goulash and the thermal bath at Gellert.
It is truly the most beautiful café in the world, and it certainly deserves the global standing.
And here’s another good reason why it is a compulsory stop – the spy thriller, Red Sparrow, had a scene filmed at the New York Café. So, you can close your eyes and imagine the seductive Jennifer Lawrence walking towards you.
Imaginations were aplenty in the world of the writers and journalists then, and today, you would appreciate New York Café, with some imagination, too.