Café Central and Restaurant is our top choice for the simple reason that it perfectly embodies “a piece of the old Pest” as coined by Mihály Babits, esteemed Hungarian poet. A 19th century bar from Budapest’s golden greets you at the entrance with its beaming mirrors and turquoise velvet highchairs.
Step into this gastronomic time capsule, take in the classic music, pristine crown moldings, brass tabletops and enjoy a cup of traditional brewed siphon coffee. The menu is reminiscent of Hungarian classic sweets including the Esterházy tort, a layered buttercream cake flavoured with cognac, poppy seed infused Flodni and the scrumptious Sacher cake filled with jam and dark chocolate.
However, what truly “takes the cake” is the coffee itself, made with a modernized version of the original siphon, whose mechanism is truly impressive. The three-part concoction starts in the lower glass container which boils the water that travels through the center filter piece which is then stored in the upper apparatus to fill 2 cups of freshly grinded coffee at a time. The coffee is brewed in front of every guest in an impressive show even for most coffee snobs.
Preserving a strong culinary and cultural epicenter is the foundations of the furnishings and interiors at Central Café. According to historians, the café has been refurbished to look as close to its original state as possible, architects and designers studied old pictures thoroughly before any re-creation. Despite the changing of ownership, a few key items survived the test of time including the central café clock, wooden chairs, chandeliers and table lamps.
The crown moldings, paneling and art reflects the Style Nouveau era by Klint and much of the architectural design was by Hungarian painter and sculptor Master Scholz Robert. The hints of orange and blue décor were a central part of the atmosphere. Everything from the original marble tables, billiard tables and even the coffee cups were Hungarian made, a key element for owners to maintain.
The first to open the café in 1887 was a Mr. Seemann, a business owner whose goal was to have enough cafés to pass down to each of his male heirs. As fate would have it, he was a proud father to only daughters and their husbands ended up inheriting the family business. They were forced to trade their well-to-do professions as bankers for coffee house owners. Not a bad deal considering they were founding the world’s best historical café.
Intellectual curiosity was invoked in every crevice of the café as it attracted the brightest minds since it was opened during the peak of Hungary’s intellectual, scientific and literary golden age. The regions of Buda and Pest were uniting and so were the city’s brightest.
The café was always sure to be stocked with foreign literature and international newspapers for the guests’ pleasure, turning the space into a hub of debate. In a single week, literary legends including Endre Ady, Mihály Babits, Kafka, and author of Sinbad Gyula Krúdy, could be found sitting in the café. Here, these men among others would partake in active discussions, creating the new generation of literature. Many argue that it was at the café that the 1907 new age for Hungarian literature was born.
The pursuit of truth and progressive values of the cafe lasted through two World Wars. Its new founders Victor Butcher and Elemér Bányai served in the First World War. Bányai perished as a squadron commander and a plaque remains in to commemorate his bravery.
Throughout the 1920’s the café went through a period of revival and renewed Westernization, yet this was a brief stint in a longer period of closure. Following the second world war and the reconstruction of Hungary as an ally to the Eastern bloc, the café was forced to close in 1949. During the communist era, coffee houses were considered institutions that challenged authority. Central café remained muted during these fundamentally trying times, but its values of progress and curiosity were not forgotten.
It reopened its doors in the 1990s, this time with a musical appeal and the steady reintroduction to intellect. It is said that a joke in Budapest travels in 3 hours since the coffee shop culture and discussion is so beloved. A vibrant city in the midst of renewal supported the reconstruction of the café into the gem that it is today.
Tourists, locals and thinkers flock to the historic landmark to travel back in time and seek inspiration when sitting down for a cup of classically brewed coffee. Central Café is not satisfied merely reminding visitors of its creative history, it also encourages all those who visit to tap into their own creativity. The place setting reads “Be a poet!” along with a wooden pencil, and a quote from one of the famous writers that probably sat at that very seat. It takes a special spirit that lives in its walls to keep the values of free thought alive through the trials of time.