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Budapest’s historic Centrál Café turns 130

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

Wednesday, June 7, 2017 — Petra Berende

Since Budapest’s splendid Centrál Café opened in 1887, it has been a prominent downtown hangout where the city’s intellectual crowd regularly gathered for enjoying sedate moments, for working, or for immersing in progressive discussions; this grand coffeehouse was especially revered among the most famous writers of Hungary’s belle époque. Even though this literary haunt served multiple functions throughout its history, as Centrál Café celebrates its 130th anniversary this year, it shines with all its glory again, as its century-old traditions tastefully blend with modern flair.

A stately building towers above a busy intersection of District V’s side streets, wedged between Károlyi Mihály Street, Irányi Street, and Cukor Street – the ground floor of the ornate edifice is home to a spacious coffeehouse that stands out amid the surrounding scenery of small galleries and modern-day hangouts, while it turns heads for preserving a vintage vibe that’s now elegantly balanced with contemporary amenities. With the recent reopening of its terrace space for the summer season, the Centrál Café and Restaurant is bustling with life, and it serves as a vibrant cultural hangout for an artsy urban crowd all year round, just like it did during the decades that followed its first opening 130 years ago, when the then-new coffeehouse was one of the most popular hangouts of many influential Magyar artists.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

At the onset of the 20th century, Hungarian writers like Frigyes Karinthy, Endre Ady, Margit Kaffka, Gyula Krúdy, and Kálmán Mikszáth were all spending substantial amounts of time inside the café jotting down powerful words and vivid visions on paper; during this era, Centrál Café was kept open day and night, providing a literary home for its guests. Besides Hungary’s prominent wordsmiths, the coffeehouse was a regular retreat for composers, professors, and even scientists who were hanging out amid Centrál Café’s early-day settings, where dedicated tables were provided for some of the regular guests, all systematically organized across eight separate halls throughout the place. However, this highly-frequented locale not only welcomed individual guests, but several editorial offices were headquartered here, including The Hét and Nyugat publications, Hungary’s most important literary journals during that era.

The café survived the ravages of two world wars, but in 1949 – during the country’s communist regime – Centrál Café was nationalized and this progressive hangout was closed down. In the following years it served as a canteen for the construction workers of Budapest’s M2 metro line, but the once-emblematic locale also functioned as a cultural center, hosting concert shows of various local bands. After the Soviet oppression over Hungary ended, a game room opened on the premises in 1993, and it was only six years later in 1999 when Centrál Café reopened to serve its original function being a symbolic hangout in the center of Budapest.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

As part of an attempt to bring back the inspirational vibe that characterized the coffeehouse back in the day, Centrál Café underwent a thorough renovation a few years ago, and anyone who enters the two-story locale nowadays will be surrounded by a tasteful scene of vintage settings that are now enhanced with cutting-edge facilities. To evoke some of the café’s original settings, the restoration works were based on archive photos that capture the place’s century-old scenes, but during the construction process it was also essential that the newly installed features meet the modern-day requirements.

Digital nomads hang out here seated on comfortable leather chairs that were specifically produced for the renewed café to resemble the style of period furniture, and while lounging amid the café’s classic scenes, guests can take a time-transcending ride looking at the black-and-white images that adorn the walls to showcase Centrál Café’s blooming days from 100 years ago. To highlight the place's role in the early-20th-century artistic scene, several photographs and illustrations are mounted side by side portraying Magyar writers who were among Centrál Café’s frequent guests.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

However, the evolution of Centrál Café didn’t come to an end: to keep up with the current gastronomy trends, a fresh menu has recently been launched in the coffeehouse that presents a selection of fine Hungarian meals and international treats that are prepared and presented according to a recently established direction by the café’s chef, Tibor Fekete – this new orientation aims to find a fine balance between traditional and modern cuisine. The recent menu includes the reimagined versions of such classic Magyar delicacies as the Újházi hen soup that is served here with shiitake mushroom, or a rabbit-based meal that comes with cream sauce, baby carrots, and mini broccoli. Early risers can order a fine selection of breakfasts, including specialties like marinated salmon served with avocado cream, chia pudding, ricotta, and poached egg. Moreover, among this new selection, guests on a special diet will also find suitable meals, including lactose-free, gluten-free, and vegetarian foods.

Those who are here to contemplate about life with a cup of freshly brewed coffee – just like many of Hungary’s literary greats did in the past – can enjoy both traditional and new-wave java specialties, the latter provided by the Lucky Cap Micro Roastery & Coffee Conception that operates in the Hungarian countryside. Centrál Café serves the caffeinated drinks by using varied methods, like the high-pressure siphon technique – during this process the barista prepares the liquid treat right next to the table of the guest.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

The selection of Centrál Café is complete with a delicate line of desserts that are all prepared on the spot, at the café’s own subterranean confectionery. The sweet selection includes assorted Hungarian delicacies, including Esterházy (a buttercream cake made with layers of almond meringue), Dobos torte (a caramel-topped sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream), or Rákóczi túrós (a sweet cottage-cheese cake), but the dessert menu also includes international treats like the Austrian Sacher cake, colorful French macarons, or lime cheesecake. One of the house’s specialties is the Centrál Cakelet, a creamy coffee-infused mousse atop a soft sponge cake. Besides these scrumptious baked delicacies, Centrál Café’s very own ice creams will be added to the sweet selection during summer.

Among the amalgam of specialty cafés that pops up citywide, the mix of contemporary amenities that Centrál Café boasts makes this heritage hangout a modern-day hotspot, but luckily this iconic locale hasn’t lost its historic charm, and these fresh facilities are created to keep the century-old traditions alive: when a guest orders a cup of aromatic coffee, it’s served with a small card that features a sweet message on one side, while the other side of the card boasts an eloquent description taken from a literary piece by one of the great Hungarian writers who was a regular here at the bar. And to preserve the place’s being the cradle of culture, paper placemats are placed on the tables, with each of them displaying a famous Hungarian poem and its English translation, while the café uses this same piece of paper to invite guests to share their own literary masterpieces within a blank frame.

Photo: Norbert Hartyányi/We Love Budapest

The legacy of Centrál Café now lives on through these inspiring initiatives, and who knows, maybe the next revered wordsmith of our generation is just now getting started here amid this storied scene.

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