The stories behind Budapest’s most elegant gastronomic landmarks, the Gundel restaurant and the Gerbeaud confectionery, are public knowledge. Other iconic culinary destinations have a more patchwork history. In another of our series, Fork Tales, we look at the Ilkovics, a restaurant steeped in urban legend.

Many think of an ’80s McDonald’s or Burger King when trying to imagine Budapest’s first fast-food eatery, but this is off the mark. Although not a burger chain, the first fast-food restaurant in the capital opened in 1925, at Nyugati station.

Izidor Ilkovics was born in 1889 in Zemplén County, north-east Hungary. He came from a family of restaurateurs, whose grandfather owned an inn in his town and whose father – with the help of his other sons – opened his own place in Budapest in 1907.

Izidor originally intended to become a projectionist, but he left the realm of cinema for gastronomy. The skills he had learned on the way proved to be useful when he founded the Ilkovics at Teréz körút 62 in 1925, with the help of his family.

Ilkovics realised the enormous opportunities a busy square like Nyugati gives to a restaurant. Besides, habits in Budapest after World War I were rapidly changing, and people started looking for cheap and convenient dining options away from the more notable cafés and restaurants.

And where’s the demand there’s supply – small, stand-up pubs started popping up everywhere, especially in the newer parts of town. However, Ilkovics had a more modern air, thanks to Izidor’s projectionist background.

The founder broke with the customs of the day, and created an independent, well-grounded business that was almost fully self-sufficient.

He understood that targeting lower-income consumers meant having to play with big numbers and larger quantities, and aimed to provide these in the most efficient way possible. After opening Ilkovics, Izidor soon started expanding, and opened a traditional eatery on Jókai utca.

In 1927, he also created a liquor and canning factory, as well as laundry, both providing for the restaurant’s needs. To have somewhere to deal with the leftover animal scraps, he founded a soap factory, while the kitchen was stocked with the products grown on his son-in-law’s farm, to avoid having to depend on suppliers. What’s more, instead of ordering wine, Ilkovics ordered grapes and created his own, followed by original palinka, too.

Although vending machines already existed in the public sphere, they became rather hard to come by after the war and the subsequent economic crisis. Here, they were revived with gusto. Ilkovics, emboldened by his projectionist past, created self-designed cooling and heating machines as well, so the beer always came cold and tea was always hot.

He was ahead of his time when he installed his own air extractor in the restaurant, so guests did not have to inhale the smells coming from the kitchen. Visuals were also important: pancakes were cooked behind large glass walls, ultimately making Ilkovics the first open kitchen in Budapest.

Employees were treated well, as the owner understood the importance of good and cheerful waiters, and tried to make their jobs easier by food lifts, among other initiatives. He hired people who helped the guests to a convenient seat as soon as they entered, as the close proximity of the station created significant footfall. The owner kept developing his place and also asked the staff for ideas – the best were granted modest prizes.

Ilkovics opened at 6am to serve the fresh pastries from the night-shift confectionery to early birds, then the bar and the restaurant also opened, and by 8am, the whole venue was in full swing.

Of a regular weekday, there would be 4-5,000 hungry guests visiting Ilkovics, and about half this number at weekends. Up to 100kg of pork and the same amount of beans were processed on the busiest days, and around 600kg of potatoes cooked, four hundredweight ending up as fries.

Liquor was also poured in great quantities: around 100-150 litres of pálinka and 600-700 litres of beer was consumed every day. The prices were very wallet-friendly, although to be fair, the ingredients were not exactly top-quality. Wiener schnitzel came from cow udder, salmon from zander and herring from freshwater carp.

Ilkovics not only had a good head for business, he sensed the arrival of harder times as well. With a Jewish heritage, he left the restaurant in the hands of a stooge in 1937. Although he thought about reopening after the war, he decided to give the restaurant to his brother Miksa, and emigrating to Israel, where he lived until his death in 1949.

In the March of the same year, the Ilkovics was nationalised by the state – according to official documents, the restaurant employed 152 people at the time, which was the second-highest number in the sector after the renowned Gundel. The complex was renamed the Népbüfé (‘People’s Buffet’), and Miksa Ilkovics was deported.

The fame, service and quality of the restaurant dropping significantly from this point onwards. It became an infamous place with informants, spies, prostitutes and ne’er-do-wells. Police raids were not uncommon, almost weekly in fact.

Urban legend attributes the violence of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 to the Népbüfé as well, although the fact that it was allowed to stay open after the return of Communism disproves this theory. What’s more likely is that the regulars of the restaurant encouraged the crowd to chant political insults at Nyugati (then Marx) tér, and collective memory connected the dots.

The Népbüfé stayed in business all the way until 1961, and was finally removed because of renovation – not because of political reasons or the authorities.

The damaged former building was replaced by a shopping centre, but the legend of the capital’s first fast-food restaurant remains in place forever.

(Source: Aetas – Havadi Gergő: Az Ilkovics büfé története és mítosza egykori vendégei emlékezetében)