“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.