“The secret to success is hospitality,” said the tall, attractive woman wearing a black felt hat with an enormously large, undulating rim. “What a pity everyone texts and no-one converses anymore.”
We were walking, in unfriendly, damp, drizzly November weather, along the Körút, the avenue that rings Budapest’s city center east of the Danube.
Our group, dedicated to coffee-house history in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, had gathered in front of the old Britannia hotel (now called Radisson Béke) where we briefly reminisced about the exquisite, elegant Zsolnay porcelain dishes in use at the hotel’s Cafe in its heyday during the early twentieth century.
Our guide – her name was Gabriella but she asked us to call her Gabri NOT Gabi – then told us about the defunct Abazzia and the Savoy Coffee Houses (frequented by journalists and politicians) as we walked toward the Művész Coffee House, (the gathering place of opera singers, musicians and theatre and film actors).
We took refuge from the rain in the Művész and were treated to excellent coffee and delicious patisseries. Apparently, Anthony Hopkins loves the “Punch” Tort it offers its patrons.
This venue is the ideal illustration of WHY NOBODY CONVERSES ANYMORE. (Nowadays, the new style Retro coffee houses and the so-called “in” restaurants, decorated with a lack of elegance and furnished with space-saving in mind, are simply too noisy and crammed.)
Contrast this with what you can see from the picture above.
The classical coffee house of yore (and there still are about a dozen operating in Budapest) was furnished as if it were the luxurious living room of a middle-class home. People sat in comfortable armchairs at reasonably-spaced tables where attentive, well-trained waiters looked after them in stylish comme il faut while their patrons conversed in subdued tones. Contrary to the situation today, nobody could – or, wanted to – hear what was being talked about at the adjacent table.
Conversation was the essence of social activity. That is why each popular coffee house quickly developed its own type of clientele. People met their like-minded friends and colleagues at their favorite venue regularly and often, not only to talk, but also to read the daily papers, exchange views and keep abreast of what was happening in their community, and, also more widely, in the world.
And, surprise, surprise, everyone who was anyone, actually took the trouble to read the daily newspapers which were provided by the coffee houses mounted on ingenious, hand-held, bamboo reading racks.
Those days are gone,
Alas, as the French say, tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse et tout se remplace. Everything passes, everything wears out, everything breaks and everything gets replaced. The Romans, of course, try to console us with tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (times change, and we change with them), but I find this to be of little consolation.
From the Művész we drifted to the Astoria, a coffee house located in the eponymously named hotel that served as the Gestapo’s Budapest headquarters during World War Two. Our tour ended at the New York (refuge of newspaper editors, journalists, poets and writers).
So, that rainy November day, we were privileged to have learned about six popular “classic” coffee houses, but, unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the Central Kávéház where the famous Flodni, the “four-act pastry”, (a traditional Hungarian Jewish confection with fillings of poppy, walnut, apple, and plum jam, separated by five layers of sweet pastry) had been invented – or, at least, perfected… supposedly.
Oh well … maybe next time.
Dear Robert Thank you for your article sounds like you had a great time, I love to imagine myself back in Budapest ! Looking forward to making it back to finally make it to the New York Cavéhaz! Cheers!
The photo makes it all so true. So nice to know that in certain parts of the world locals are still speaking to each other and exchanging ideas. I hear the same is true of the coffee houses of Warsaw. Says a lot.
Roberto! Your blog today was clairvoyant – just this morning, literally an hour ago, Pasale son Alex and i were talking about a family trip in April, 2020 … where to go … where to go… and Budapest is in the top three! I won’t say your wonderfully written entry clinched the deal but … who knows? All Love to you and Susan!
Thanks for that nice walk back to the old days. It’s probably only us coffee house dinosaurs that remember the Montreal Pam Pam – Little Europe – and L’echurie as well as many Italian espresso shops in the north end.
Most of these have been replaced by the franchise units of Tim Hortons – Starbucks – Second Cup etc., all designed for commercial and profit purposes only.
Fortunately a few old type coffee houses have emerged on Notre Dame near the Atwater marketwhere I live, I hope they survive, it’s important to slow down this all too rapid progress, we need time to stop and smell the flowers.
Very enjoyable reading as usual. Thank you Robert.
I enjoy your frequent stories and the way you write. I actually understood the latin from what I had to learn at gymnasium. It was not my favorite subject then, learning a dead language I thought. But now almost every day something latin pops up, especially in the medical field (as you get older!) and so in my final days, months or maybe even years, latin comes in handy. And I too have my coffee hangout in Kelowna where at least the owner knows me by now and would ask if “they did my latte to my satisfaction”. He knows I want the temperature at 110 degrees, not so hot as Starbucks where you burn your mouth.
But as you said, the good old cosy days and actual conversations are gone. Everybody, really everygoddammbody,is staring into their box, including me as I have noone to talk to.
But that will change in 2 weeks when I check in at San Diego for a panama canal cruise, ending up in Ft. Lauderdale. And yes, you guessed it: From there I fly to Cayman and spend 19 days on the beach and in the water with Oakleys, my friends of yore, visiting old hangouts and reminiscing about this certain good friend: the Landori.
Happy birthday to you belatedly. I must have overlooked my note in the agenda.
So keep well my friend and enjoy the coffeehoust tour.
Salut Robert ! Great commentary, many insights, lovely vignettes- enjoyed nostalgia trip! Thanks, appreciated! My choice lately has been bypassing the coffee houses and the big name pastry shops (Gerbeaud, Russworm, etc.); recommend Nandori Cukraszda at Bakats ter! Andras
So you were at the New York coffee house in December. My family of 10 persons had a nostalgia trip to Hungary last summer: our son and daughter, each with their spouses and requisite two children, plus the two of us, old timers. We spent two weeks, 8 days in Budapest and 5 at the Balaton and the trip was a great success. It looked like I wasn’t going to fulfill my one fondest wish to visit a real coffee house in Budapest, but on the last day, four of us broke away from the rest and marched to the New York. It was an amazing amount of kitsch, gold on everything, crystal chandeliers, a gypsy band on the balcony. Tourists stood in line and waited to get in. But it wasn’t all lost. Each table had a photo and a story of the writer or journalist, whose regular table that used to be 70 plus years ago and the music brought back many memories. 4 ice creams and 3 coffees added up to 100 Canadian dollars.