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A Table at Gundel

07
September
2012
 

Given enough time, writing space and reader interest it would be easy to list a variety of compelling reasons why you should spend time in Hungary and Budapest. It could be the charm of the illuminated chain bridge at night connecting Buda and Pest across the Danube, the wonderful shopping experiences on Vaci and Andrassy Streets or the touristy charm of gypsy violins playing during dinner. If you were to ask forcefully however and say “Give me one good reason why I should go to Budapest!” The one word answer would have to be Gundel.

Gundel is a restaurant but to leave it at that is to say that The Ritz is a hotel, Harrods is a shop and Porsche is a car. All true statements but sometimes places and things move from entity to icon so that they define the genre. That is not to say that they don’t have their faults or uneven delivery (even a Porsche can get a flat) but a restaurant like Gundel feeds the imagination as well as the stomach.

 It pleases today’s palate but creates for you a movie from the 1940’s when the hero has arrived from Istanbul on the Orient Express and is looking for a Ruritanian princess traveling incognito ( and probably played by Greta Garbo). They meet at a romantic restaurant set in a park where the waiters wear tails and the women diamonds. Gundel is that type of place and has the pedigree to prove it.

Located in a park like setting close to the Zoo, it originally opened in 1894 as Wampetics. The restaurant still occupies the same site including the cavernous cellar holding a vast quantity of Hungarian and other wines. In 1910 Karoly Gundel bought the business and changed the name and the menu. With his son Janos, who had worked in some of the great hotels of Europe, they created a menu based on Hungarian tradition with European flair. Between the two world wars it served the elite of Hungarian and even European society. Americans got to know it at the 1939 World’s Fair where Gundel set up a concession to introduce America to Hungarian cuisine.

After the war the communist regime took over the restaurant and the food standards dropped dramatically but it stayed open and many of the staff stayed on. With the demise of the Soviet Empire, Hungary regained its freedom.

A Hungarian émigré had made a success of the restaurant business in the USA including Café des Artistes in New York City. That man, George Lang along with Ronald Lauder of the Estee Lauder family bought the restaurant and brought the building and the menu up to their old standards.

While more current menu items are available, they still have a heritage menu that you are encouraged to try especially the Foie Gras in many presentations and a decadent dessert called Gundel Palacsinta which is a crepe filled with raisins and walnuts and seasoned with Rum and lemon zest and served with chocolate sauce. Such decadence does not come cheap but is worth the splurge.

If however you would like the experience at a lesser price you can have dinner at Bagolyvar Etterem which was an innovation of Lang’s. While still part of the old building this bistro serves authentic Hungarian home cooking. As testament the entire staff, from the General Manager to the wait staff are all women. Regardless of the choice, Gundel is a must.