He calmly sits there with his colourful reading glasses, white T-shirt, keychain on his pants and a pile of dense notes scribbled with Hebrew letters. He drinks his water with a very humble modesty and asks what he should tell about his life: “The short or the long version? My life is in fact very interesting.” Tal Lev is the owner of Café Spinoza, a Budapest institution in Dob utca in the Jewish Quarter. He also owns the Cuban restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio in Fészek Művészklub and manages the restaurant guide Budapest Menü.
Lev was born in Israel, the child of two Jewish refugees of the Second World War. His father was Polish and his mother Russian and he grew up in Haifa. After his service in the Israeli army, he moved to the capital, Jerusalem, to study. He was not a very devoted student; he focused less on learning than the nightlife of the vibrant city.
“Clubs, piano bars, dance halls – they attracted me more than the lectures.” He got to know a few successful restaurant concepts and at the same time studied to become a tour guide. In Israel this is a sought-after and strictly regulated job, and, says Lev, “it’s much more demanding than here”.
Working as a guide he met people from all over the world, and he visited some of them in their home countries. Lev spent several months in the US where he learned about Mexican cuisine, including from the founder of restaurant chain El Torito.
Back in Jerusalem he opened a kosher Mexican restaurant – a big success. Still a tour guide he learned about Hungary and in 1989 he came for his first but not last visit to Budapest. He fell in love with the city but first of all with a woman. She followed him to Israel, they had a son and the restaurant was still running very well. But the peace did not last forever.
In 2001 suicide bombings started in Israel and the tourists did not come any more. There were no more customers for the restaurant. It was a circumstance over which they had no power, and as Jewish writer Baruch Spinoza (after whom the cafe is named) said: “Everything can only be destroyed by an external cause.”
Now separated from the Hungarian girlfriend, Tal Lev returned to Budapest, this time for long term. Driven by ambition, he recognised that finding a good restaurant in the city is a challenge, and founded Budapest Menü, which quickly became one of the city’s most popular restaurant guides.
As the manager of Budapest Menü he was already in contact with the best restaurants in town, so being an Israeli it’s no wonder that he got an offer to take over the poorly performing Spinoza. He changed the concept to comply with his idea of the basic ingredients of a good restaurant: “Basically it’s the little things like a good menu, the correct volume of the music and good service – always with a smile.”
As such, Spinoza is now running well. One reason is the various cultural activities such as Klezmer concerts on Friday, live piano and theatre performances. Additionally Lev finds it important that “the guests get more than they expected and what they paid for”. The choice of food is composed of Hungarian classics and his favourite Jewish and Mediterranean dishes such as hummus, roasted eggplant or antipasti.
Tal Lev does not practise the Jewish religion very strictly, such as keeping the Sabbath and living kosher, although he celebrates traditional festivals such as Yom Kippur. Spinoza is not a real kosher restaurant but it can be referred to as “kosher-style”, for example there is no pork on the menu but there is no separation of meat and dairy products either.
His other restaurant, La Bodeguita del Medio, is dedicated to Cuban cuisine. The beautiful garden and the live music each night fulfil the goal of giving the customers really more than they expect.
Lev is currently very happy because in addition to the well-running businesses he and his new Hungarian girlfriend have a child, again a son. But he’s still not satisfied. “I have still a lot of plans,” he says. “I am far from being done.”
He has set himself a very ambitious goal to make the La Bodeguita del Medio the most popular restaurant in Europe, and in Spinoza there is still room for improvement. “One day the restaurant will be full – from 8am to midnight.”
Lev also plans to open a hotel. “I prefer a small one, so that I can keep in touch with the guests and the staff.”
This personal contact with guests and employees is very important for him, so he is on the way to his restaurants in the Jewish Quarter each and every day. This is the area that he likes best in the city, a piece of history and culture that you can no longer find in the German cities. He tells us of his girlfriend, who always says, “We are very happy to have the Jews here because they have helped to build the city”.
It is a sentence that certainly applies to Tal Lev, even if he is not fully kosher.