Attention! Pilvax is open again! Considered the central hub of the 1848 Revolution, the Pilvax Café was where the city’s fervent artists and intellectuals regularly gathered to exchange opinions about life in Hungary under the Habsburg regime. As iconic as it was, in 1910 the block of which the café was a part got demolished. In recent years we were able to visit the venue, but concepts with different themes kept replacing each other. The place has now returned to its roots and reopened as a cafe-restaurant so that the historic site can regain its original function. We paid them a visit.
The Reform Era's iconic coffeehouse Pilvax Café reopens in its full glory
If we ask a Hungarian schoolboy, without any thorough understanding of the history of Budapest, to list essential locations from the Reform Era and The Hungarian Revolution of 1848, he surely mentions the Pilvax. This is the historic café where the revolution started, and where the eager and devoted 'youth of March' (young representatives of the radical revolutionary spirit who played an active part in initiating the events of 15 March 1848) and other intellectuals and artists found a welcoming and buzzing environment, their version of the agora.
Pilvax Café in the days of yore
We already revived the long story of Pilvax Café in a previous article and you can find an explainer on Hungary's March 15th holiday here. But now we will share some key points so that you can visit the reopened restaurant with sufficient background information. Worry not, they won't quiz you, but trust us, savouring your soup with a full understanding of the spirit of the place will feel different.
Karl Pillvax (spelled with two l's at the time), the catering industry specialist of Austrian descent, fell in love with a Hungarian girl, followed her to Budapest, and married her in 1841. His first job was measuring wine but soon he started to search for the right business premises to yield his coffee-making skills instead. In 1942 he took over the successful Café Renaissance in Úri utca (now Petőfi Sándor utca) and named it after himself, so Pilvax was born.
He decorated the coffee house with portraits of patriots important historical figures and Hungarian heroes. This could easily be the reason the café attracted intellectuals with an awakening national consciousness and became their regular meeting place. Sándor Petőfi (the famous Hungarian poet and a key figure in the revolution) and his circle of friends, the Tízek Társasága (‘the Society of Ten’), and the fraternity of lawyers and students headed by Pál Vasvári, settled in nicely.
In 1846 Károly Pillvax passed the café to a certain János Fillinger. Then it gained another name after 15 March 1848, conceived by Sándor Petőfi himself: the apt Szabadság Csarnoka, ‘Freedom Hall’. But despite the new name, it was forever referred to as Pilvax. International news announcing the victory of the Vienna Revolution was delivered here, and it was here that Petőfi recited his National Song for the first time. A proud tradition only sullied by the defeat of the War of Independence. Its revolutionary role, however, left its mark on the further history of Pilvax.
In 1867 renowned restaurateur Antal Schőja became the owner. Then János Schowanetz, his head waiter for 20 years, took over in 1891. Until its closure and dismantling, he ran the Pilvax and proved to be its best owner, partly because he maintained the spirit of the place. The walls were covered with pictures of the heroes of 1848, and above the entrance hung a memorial plaque. In 1913 however, the entire block of the coffee house was demolished, and it only reopened in 2021, a little further away from the original location.
Pilvax Café today
And now we are sitting here, in a brand new space, among modern furniture, but still feel a hint of the past, which is not a coincidence. The goal was to combine the atmosphere of the Monarchy and the present day, both in terms of exteriors and what is on offer. This is not a typical Hungarian restaurant with greasy meals, even though several classics can be found on the menu, they offer international favourites too. After all, in Pilvax's heyday, there was not even a trace of the classic Hungarian dishes we know today (such as the Hortobágy meat pancake, which was only created in 1958), so the international offer was an evident choice.
So stuffed cabbage, tartar beefsteak, goulash soup, Porcini mushroom cream soup, "Kárpáti" styled Pike perch fillet, chicken paprikash, Wiener schnitzel, shrimp curry, spaghetti carbonara, Caprese salad, tiramisu, and brownies go well together. Quite a democratic diversity, but it mirrors the mixture of the guests perfectly.
For Hungarians the return of such a well-known and historic place is a heartwarming and celebrated event. It even adds to the importance that key figures of the era, such as Sándor Petőfi and Lajos Kossuth, are peering down from the walls. After all, the space was decorated with portraits of historical figures in the past as well. Locals are delighted to have their iconic Pilvax back, but the café is equally for foreigners.
Now you know what the café represents. So if you look to immerse in history, and wish to spend a little time in such an emblematic and meaningful place, Pilvax welcomes you with open arms. It also has an outstanding reputation on online review sites: its pleasant atmosphere, attentive staff, and huge portions are all attractive features. In addition, we must note here that not only lunch and dinner are served. If you are not up for big meals but would like to enjoy a slice of cake and a cup of coffee, that is perfectly fine too. The coffee house function is not forgotten.
You might even meet the new owner of Pilvax, as he works at the restaurant almost every day. He chats and exchanges ideas with guests, inquires about their experience, the food, and their time in Budapest. This is another likable feature and adds a lot to the experience. After all, who doesn't want a warm, truly welcoming atmosphere?
Practice shows that it was a great initiative to revive a place of such historical importance. Pilvax had, has, and will always have a place in Budapest!