There’s no escaping the fact that Hungary’s gastronomic personality is largely defined by the likes of chicken draped in paprika-cream sauce. But in the city of Budapest, which lies squat in the middle of tradition and modernity, a new way to eat is emerging. Past the paprikash dens and Michelin-starred restaurants, a group of supper clubs is illuminating the alluring mix of Hungary’s rich roots and progressive future—ditching the formal restaurant dining room for something far more intimate.
Food Tours and Underground Meals
Carolyn and Gábor Bánfalvi, an American and Hungarian wife and husband team, launched the tour company Taste Hungary in 2014. The company runs small food-focused tours across the country, capped at six people; I spent a day with them winding through Budapest's vibrant Jewish Quarter. While the majority of the day was spent inside gawking at synagogues, the highlight was a lunch inside the book-lined home of Maja Raj, widow of a well-loved rabbi and mother of one of the city's most acclaimed pastry stars, Rachel Raj.
To kick off the meal, everyone drank her homemade pálinka (the best, smoothest version I've had so far of this indigenous fruit brandy) before gathering in the dining room. Here, in the company of Shabbat-themed board games, we all ate bread slathered in meltingly soft goose fat and slabs of tender beef tongue heightened by horseradish sauce. Rachel's famous flodni, a Jewish torte layered with poppy seeds, apple, walnut and plum jam, was the fitting finale.
I found more convivial, communal eating at Tasting Table (& Shop), the Bánfalvis' second venture. Located in the gritty Eighth District, it's a rustic subterranean spot for locals to buy a bottle of, say, Pinot Noir-meets-Gamay-like Kadarka, but on most Thursday evenings it transforms into a restaurant. That's when a predominantly English-speaking group of tourists, expats, and locals pack in for wine tastings and themed dinners.
“During our travels in Hungary we meet so many interesting people who are making so many good things, and we wanted to bring them to the Tasting Table,” Carolyn explains.
The first family-style dinner I attended there was an ode to Roma Gypsy cuisine, with fiery stuffed peppers and cinnamon challah; another put nearby Transylvania in the spotlight through polenta laden with smoky bacon and ethereal fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts. At these meals I sat beside local and foreign strangers—including a couple serendipitously visiting from the Queens neighborhood I called home for many years—but made friends quickly. For Carolyn, these meals are more than just dinner; they’re a way to “bring the participants closer to understanding some aspect of Hungarian food or wine, and to also make them feel as if they are part of a community here.”
As Budapest’s dining culture continues to evolve, it’s not surprising that food-savvy locals are also embracing the supper club model as a way of showcasing the unexpected ascent of Hungarian cuisine. “The idea of Hungarian contemporary cuisine hardly existed five years ago, and the city’s restaurants lacked the style that many of them have now,” Carolyn observes.
Dinner With the Family
Suzie Goldbach, a poised, 25-year-old whose college curriculum revolved around food studies, returned to Budapest from abroad in search of the right job. When she couldn't find it, she founded Eat & Meet last January by serving Hungarian family recipes in an inviting apartment. Her dinners since become exceptionally popular with curious tourists—as a recent Budapest transplant, I was the only "local" at mine—and Suzie sometimes throws as many as five a week, warmly greeting her guests and explaining the origin of each of the three courses.
While Suzie plays the consummate hostess, the dinners are a family affair. Her mother Zsuzsa works the kitchen, making every dish from scratch; her father Ferenc presides over the all-Hungarian wine list.
“At a restaurant—as good as it can be—you never experience true home-cooked food, the ‘Sunday family-lunch’ effect,” Suzie explains. “There’s an image of, ‘It’s Hungarian only if there’s paprika in it,’ which is absolutely not true.” At my first Eat & Meet dinner, golden brown breaded carp was a welcome surprise. Hungary is oft-deemed carnivore country, but Suzie, a fan of native freshwater fish varieties, wanted to introduce guests to something uncommon. I still dream of the tangy, vinegary tomato salad that accompanied the mustard marinated pork at my second dinner.
Emphasizing Hungarian ingredients like poppy seed is always Suzie’s priority; she just doesn’t want them to be glimpsed through the same dusty lens. So she dreams up ever-changing, seasonal menus in tandem with her mother that authentically reflect the everyday dishes relished in Hungarian kitchens. Pumpkin might be the star of a cozy November dinner, while July brings meat grilled in an open-air setting, 15 minutes out of the city.
Adam Pohner, part of the Bocuse d'Or Hungarian team, is another young, bright visionary eager to expand Budapest's culinary profile. He's dialed back his cooking duties at Budapest's Olimpia to study Japanese. To ensure his kitchen skills remain on par with his academic pursuits, he started making casual dinners that his friends came to, "and then they brought their friends and were like, 'You have to try this,' and so on. I almost didn't do anything, just cooked as well as I could."
It caught on. Now he arranges dinner over email, dashing off to locals’ homes as often as four times a week, taking over their kitchens to turn out multi-course dinners. The two times I sampled Pohner’s cooking were at the invitation of a Hungarian family, when he prepared dishes like curry-laced carrots, beef neck with beets and potato in a Chinese-style sauce, and thick coffee-chocolate mousse.
Pohner doesn’t prescribe to any certain formula; his menu changes with inspiration from the markets, which over one meal meant a seafood-centric menu of trout with vanilla sauce and meaty octopus with wasabi. Unlike the Goldbachs and the Bánfalvis, Pohner cooks for locals first and foremost, but if you have a kitchen available, he’s up for a challenge.
The Upscale Restaurant That Isn't a Restaurant
There’s nothing predictable served at the elegant communal wood table that is the centerpiece of Zoltán 18. Set inside an airy apartment in the shadow of the U.S. Embassy, Zoltán, which made its debut a little over a year ago, is essentially an upscale restaurant without the restaurant, run by Krisztian Katona and Anatoli Belov, where they bring the light, produce-centric flavors of North American West Coast cooking to Budapest. That means fresh sabrefish atop verdant asparagus risotto, or rounds of rabbit porchetta accompanied by organic vegetables, all savored in an art-filled dining room.
Krisztian and Anatoli first met in Vancouver, where Krisztian was running a local coffee franchise and Anatoli was a loyal customer. The encounter sparked “a culinary journey, which took us cooking on the side of the highway to yachts and weddings.”
“Hungary has changed a lot since I started coming back in the mid-nineties,” Krisztian says, “but somehow the food stayed the same. We wanted to change all of that and become one of the pioneers.”
“We constantly hear from locals and expats alike that they have not tasted anything like this since they have been here,” Krisztian tells me. He and Anatoli plan to bring their double punch of cooking and hospitality to a proper restaurant setting later this winter, and already I am eager to roost there and gorge. But the spirit of their current enterprise is worth a trip right away. There’s something extra special about a meal where you’re sharing a table with strangers—particularly when they become friends afterwards.
How to Book
Booking these meals is best done in advance, but if you're looking for a last-minute dinner, there might just be room, depending on the venue.
About $27 U.S. per person
Eat & Meet
About $32 U.S. per person
Adam Pohner Kitchen Take-Overs
About $20 U.S. per person
About $50 U.S. per person
A native New Yorker, Alia Akkam recently moved to Budapest, where she continues to write about food, travel, drink, and design. Her work has appeared in outlets such as Vogue.com, ArchitecturalDigest.com, Playboy, and Wine Enthusiast.