Hidden at the foot of centuries-old trees providing welcome shade, the legendary Szépilona restaurant has reopened as a bistro. In a huge garden with art-deco elements and a lush interior, dishes are once more being served to a discerning customer base thanks to a new owner who understands the business inside out. We trekked up to hilly, leafy Buda to sample for ourselves.

Under the plentiful shade of plane trees, this garden restaurant where Budakeszi út begins was welcoming guests a century ago. The last great era of the Szépilona restaurant, however, began in 1976, when Imre Luzsi took it over. Down the years, the Szépilona was one of those iconic Buda restaurants, until it closed unexpectedly in the autumn of 2019. Luzsi, who had been running the restaurant successfully for 43 years, stepped out to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.

However, the family wanted the Szépilona to be more than just a beautiful memory, so with the help of a family friend, László Molnár, they sat down with Klára Dallos, behind Buda’s successful Bartók, and someone else with a long, proven record in recent decades: Gábor Kereszty, responsible for one of the most revered bistros in town, the Két Szerecsen. With Imre’s daughter Tímea Luzsi also in attendance, the meeting led to a plan to create a Szépilona for the 21st century. 

It’s an approach that underscores the whole operation, inside and out. The interior retained some of the more beautiful pieces of art deco, a couple of dressers and toner chairs, but also gained a somewhat cheeky, Paris-bistro atmosphere with striking photos, old movie posters and a couple of lush green plants. The motto of the new Szépilona is a very simple and heartfelt idea borrowed from a famous resident of Buda, writer Sándor Márai, ‘You have to love life’. 

The menu also takes the same approach, as well playing up its Buda credentials, essential in the case of Szépilona – and all kept within the framework of a bistro. On the short-term fixed menu, you will find everything you need for a genuine bohemian restaurant reminiscent of the Habsburg days, from Franz Joseph’s favourite tafelspitz, of which more later, through Wiener schnitzel and game to the kaiserschmarrn pancake dessert.

However, since this is not 1910 and diners no longer arrive in hats at jaunty angles or long skirts, concessions have been made to the aforementioned 21st century. Salads number among the light, well-assembled dishes. 

In addition to the fixed menu, the well-known, wider-than-average weekly offer from Két Szerecsen can soon be expected, with plenty of fresher and more contemporary dishes alongside classic Buda favourites. Being a garden place in bucolic Buda, the selection of drinks also plays a big role, Bavarian Paulaner beer served cold with a perfect head, and the wine list was created by the savvy crew at Bortársaság, selecting from the best Balaton cellars.

Turning back to the current menu, and one of its most impressive offerings, that tafelspitz (4,990 HUF). The sad experience is that although nostalgia for Buda garden restaurants has never waned, these days the average Buda diner, unless they go to Vienna, only knows this classic Habsburg dish from films.

The Szépilona now compensates for its absence with a proper, beautifully presented tafelspitz which, as legend dictates, is both a soup and main course in one. The steaming, pure beef broth comes in a red cast-iron pot, cooked with medium crunchy, colourful carrots, lightly minced meat, marrow bone and soft, boiled beef. 

The first task is to remove the bone from the pot, happily acknowledging its presence by taking great delight in smearing the marrow bone onto the hot toast. You should then drizzle in it into the still hot soup with the dumplings and bright carrots and, once that’s done, turn your attention to the tafelspitz ingredients presented on a separate tray. Spread out is an array of beautifully tasty meat, toast with crispy potato rolls, a bowl of fresh, tasty spinach, a light, sweet, delicately spicy apple horseradish and a more neutral, nostalgic sauce.

The ingredients are not overwhelmed, the kitchen has made sure their natural, characterful tastes remain, everyone entering the party only as much as their qualities allow. It is noteworthy that although intended only as an accompaniment, the perfect spinach suggests that great care is taken over the vegetables at Szépilona.

After such flawless nostalgia, we investigated more contemporary flavours: the superfood salad (2,390 HUF). The salad situation in Budapest still leaves a lot to be desired, but fortunately this is a happy exception. On a base of four to five green lettuce leaves, you find wafer-thin raw beetroot, avocado, edamame, pomegranate seeds, sun-dried tomatoes and boiled quinoa mixed with a light citrus, olive-oil sauce. For a little paid extra, you can ask for chicken breast, goats’ cheese or crab as well.

Cheek-of-pork stew (3,190 HUF) tastes traditional, but in its serving and creation with modern kitchen technology, it is pure 2020. For the soft meat, you receive an almost sticky, thick juice – it’s worth mopping up at the end with a little bread – as well as pickled pearl and red onions, and potatoes boiled and fried.

Desserts may be an embarrassment of riches for the diner whose appetite has mainly been sated. We opted for two classics, kaiserschmarrn (1,590 HUF) and fried cottage-cheese pancakes (1,390 HUF), as good as each other. The kaiserschmarrn a shredded pancake named after Franz Joseph himself, is made à la minute, ie it is assembled when ordered, without the finished mass obtained from the refrigerator.

Because of this, you may have to wait a bit for it but (spoiler alert!), it’s so worth that 15 minutes. This traditional, plentiful Austrian delight is a spongy on the inside, caramelised to a crisp on the outside, not overly sweet, for which they not only provide homemade apricot jam but also Austrian-style apple sauce.

The baked pancakes with cottage cheese are the embodiment of a childhood dream: hiding in the crunchy, pancake batter is a creamy, cottage-cheese filling with a silky lemony-vanilla sauce poured over it.

There’s no need to embellish any further, even the sun shines brighter afterwards.

Szépilona Bisztró
District II. Budakeszi út 3
Open: Daily noon-10pm