Budapest’s historic coffeehouses allow the visitor to travel back in time, to the era when poets would convene over espressos in ornate surroundings. One of the first of its kind, the 135-year-old Centrál Cafe, has just reopened after a two-year hiatus.
A coffee and a poem, please! Legendary literary landmark, the Centrál Cafe, reopens
Evoking the atmosphere of a fin-de-siècle grand café, the Centrál in downtown Budapest now combines its literary heritage with Parisian chic in a bright interior. Its menu also offers dishes with a contemporary French twist, from breakfast to dinner.
One of the oldest cafés in Budapest
From the end of the 19th century, the café life of Budapest attracted artists, writers, musicians and actors to gather in the smoky realm of the classic coffeehouse. The Hungarian capital was following in the footsteps of Paris, and by the 1890s could already count some 400 cafés. One of the oldest of the genre is the Centrál, which opened its doors in 1887 at the downtown junction of Károlyi, Irányi and Cukor utca, on the ground floor of a classic residential apartment building.
What made the Centrál stand out from its competitors is best illustrated by writer Géza Ottlik’s apt recollection:
Sausage, billiards and cabbage
“Like many other cafés, small or large, the Centrál is open until morning – that is, round the clock. The Elysée had a great sausage and everything was accompanied by a serving of mayonnaise potato salad. At the Miami, a women’s band played… Billiards over the cold buffet at the Simplon was the best, the cabbage soup at the New York as morning beckoned… But in the Cukor utca wing of Centrál, even after 2am, you could read in peace with a simple espresso until four or five”.
Budapest’s bohemia may have gathered at the New York and Japán cafés, but it was no coincidence that several generations of writers at influential publications A Hét and Nyugat held their regular meetings at this comfortable haven.
These included Endre Ady, Dezső Kosztolányi, Árpád Tóth, Mihály Babits, Lőrinc Szabó, and later Ágnes Nemes Nagy, János Pilinszky, István Örkény, Magda Szabó and many others who define Hungary’s literary canon today.
Budapest a café capital again?
As wars swept across Europe, so coffeehouses disappeared. Swift trade at the post-war presszó completely supplanted the comfortable literary café. From the 1950s, the Centrál provided space for large corporations, a factory canteen, even a games arcade. In the 2000s, however, a major comeback took place, the café was rebuilt and reopened, having undergone several changes of ownership and profile during the previous 20 years.
Eventually, the pandemic sealed its fate, and silence has reigned at the Centrál area over the past two years. Now, however, the legendary café, has reopened, fittingly during the week of Hungarian National Poetry Day, and is currently welcoming visitors from Thursdays to Sundays, with a new operation in renovated surroundings.
After the renovation of the New York Café, Budapest has welcomed back another gem from the last turn of the century, and the undisguised goal of Centrál’s new operator, Eventrend, is to make Budapest the capital of cafés once more.
Classic elegance with modern twist
The new operators have taken a bold approach to the café’s literary heritage, creating a vibrant communal hub for local residents, with excellent coffee and delicious food.
Linger longer at Centrál
“Our first and biggest task was to restore the original main entrance because until now, it was only possible to sneak into the café through the side door. Now visitors can safely enter an inviting space, where our aim is to encourage guests to linger,” says Gábor Nagy, one of the founding owners of Eventrend.
In addition to the restoration of the main entrance, the biggest change was the illumination of the space, as the former coffered but somewhat stifling dark-wood panelling has been superseded by elegant, light-coloured panels and mirrors. At the same time, some of the antique furniture, the chandeliers and elements from the original counter, have been preserved, livened up with plenty of houseplants and decorations evoking of the last turn of the century.
The renovated Centrál also contains two pianos, one in the classic restaurant section, where steam rises from the open coffee kitchen, and the second in the other wing of the café, where the champagne bar operates. The pleasant and spacious street-front terrace, opposite the Ernst Gallery, offers a bohemian feel. Of course, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on Centrál’s literary heritage, with the signatures of Hungary’s greatest writers await guests right in front of the main entrance.
A slice of literature
At Centrál, the atmosphere of the grand cafés of Paris is not only evoked by the interior and the milieu but also by the French-inspired menu. Not only can you pop in here for a coffee, but also linger over breakfast, a hearty lunch or a pleasant dinner, with exciting dishes for all occasions among the selection.
Dániel Juhász, the former chef of Déryné, with his outstanding domestic and international experience, has crafted an excitingly fresh menu at Centrál, while chefs Balázs Bán and Máté Juhász conjure up the dishes with precision and creativity.
The café is a real paradise for brunch lovers, as a whole raft of breakfast options ranges from a classic Eggs Benedict to the Hungarian káposztás cvekedli, an age-old cabbage and pasta dish in modern guise. If you so fancy, you can have breakfast here all day, but smoked-salmon tartare or oven-baked goats’ cheese conchiglie served with Provençal ragout are also ideal for lunch.
Pâtisserie chef Judit Takács of 12 years’ experience has dreamed up real dessert specialities, including the French reinterpretation of Esterházy and Dobos torta cakes.
Beyond the delicious dishes, real charm and curiosity await in the classic and contemporary poetry, even song lyrics, which you can hear the literary waiters recite as you sip your well-deserved coffee.
Centrál Grand Cafe & Bar 1887
1053 Budapest, Károlyi utca 9
Open: Thur-Sat 9am-midnight, Sun 9am-6pm