Around the same time, pastries became hardwired into Budapest’s food landscape, largely owing to the rise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Budapest experienced major economic and industrial growth and development post-1850,” says Amy Emberling, managing partner of Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor, MI, which specializes in Hungarian food. “During the second half of the 1800s, as wealth grew in the general public, they wanted to enjoy great desserts, [which] became available to them in cafés and bakeries. (Restaurateur) George Lang referred to Hungary as ‘the land of 10 million pastry lovers.’ This is referring to the great breadth and depth of the Hungarian dessert repertoire.” And indeed, Budapest’s range of pastries could easily rival that of a soprano at La Scala.
Unfortunately, there’s also a bittersweet side to the city’s café culture. “The Holocaust did huge damage to the scene, as at least half of the coffeehouses were Jewish-owned,” says Bánfalvi. “Regimes did not want the conversation, freedom of speech, journalism, and literature that was the essence of coffeehouses until then. Today many of the old places are back and are serving coffee again, and Budapest is proud of this part of its past.”
Today, a trip to Budapest is incomplete without a visit to New York Café and Centrál Coffee House (open since 1887), two of the major players during the city’s café renaissance still in existence today. New York Café in particular is worth seeking out for its dazzling opulence and majestic scale (along with statuesque coffee drinks and hot chocolate). There’s even a meat and cheese plate they call “The Writer’s Dish,” a touching homage to a bygone, but not forgotten, era.