Sir Roger Moore 007 sat in this same chair in the middle of the restaurant. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie opted to dine in the privacy of a wine cellar, away from the inevitable glances. Queen Elizabeth II ate upstairs in Gundel’s ballroom and was delighted to discover that it was named after her; a diplomatic silence kept her happily unaware that in fact it was named after another Queen Elizabeth: Sissy.
Name-dropping comes easily at Budapest’s Gundel Restaurant, and photos of other red-carpet diners adorn the reception wall: Henry Kissinger, Pope John-Paul II, Sir Alex Ferguson, George Bush senior and more (Pál Schmitt hasn’t been banished). Then there were Madonna Louise Ciccone, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Hillary Clinton and Sylvester Stallone. Restaurant staff recall the King of Tonga’s birthday meal. Viktor Orbán apparently likes to sit out among the people: some of his not-quite-10-million freedom fighters.
Some of the “elite” arrive unannounced, straight off the street, and others with a phalanx of bodyguards. You don’t have to wear a crown, drop drones on terrorists or star in Hollwood “blockbusters”, though. Gundel, with its atmosphere of old Europe, is in every guidebook and almost as much on the tourist trail as the neighbouring zoo and nearby Szechenyi Baths. In a book called “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” there are five Hungarian entries, including… you guessed it. Gundel is a Hungaricum.
In fact Gundel hopes it is priced modestly for everyone, hard-hit locals too. It faces more competition and times are tougher for people these days, but managing director Tádé Alföldy says the restaurant is determined to maintain standards and not compromise itself by using cheaper ingredients or sacking the sommelier. You can’t cheat the customers through dubious cost-cutting, he says. “Gundel is not luxury, Gundel is quality,” is a long-standing motto.
Another central tenet of management policy is that Gundel, dating back to János Gundel in 1879, is the true home of Hungarian cuisine and this is a tradition to be protected at all costs, while at the same time catering somewhat for international tastes and allowing some new techniques and ingredients.
Down in their cellar, Pitt and Jolie no doubt had a fine dining experience but missed out on the beautiful ambience of this renowned restaurant. A six-piece orchestra led by Gyula Horváth plays every night and EUR 4 million of paintings decorate the walls, representing many great Hungarian masters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Rippl-Rónai and Munkácsy. Everyone eats from Zsolnay or Herend porcelain with silver cutlery, and drinks from crystal glasses. The room and music are relaxating and diners tend to down tools frequently and take their time; it is not uncommon for meals to be stretched out over three hours-plus.
Applause for the orchestra breaks out sometimes and on one memorable night a woman diner was moved to stand up and sing along, to the delight of all. It turned out that she was among a group of performers from the world-renowned La Scala opera house in Milan, on a concert tour.
Turning to the food, executive chef Gábor Merczi specialises in goose liver; in 50 different ways, in fact. Many of Gundel’s choices are dishes of goose liver or dishes with goose liver, he says. There are spring/summer and autumn/winter menus to fit the seasons; a time for strawberries and a time for asparagus, for instance. Gundel’s website illustrates its many wide-ranging selections.
Head sommelier Mihály Fabók melds in with Merczi and advises diners on his selection of 200 wines, about 75% of which are Hungarian. Here is a man excited about his job – and no wonder, living a life in wine. He is particularly enthusiastic about his range of Tokajs, which make a classic combination with all that goose liver. Tokaj Essence comes well recommended.
Back at the turn of the 19th century, the Gundel building, on the edge of City Park, was originally the home of János Gundel, and he and his wife had 13 children. So it is a sizeable place and upstairs, besides the Queen Elizabeth Ballroom, are seven smaller rooms of interest, each themed and with table and chairs for private functions.
House director Kálmán Kozma shows us around this inner world. Of particular note is the Solti Room with its musical theme. The wooden backs of the chairs have carved lutes, the light fittings are in the shape of french horns, the three windows have Liszt, Bartók and Kodáy etched in the glass and the silk wallpaper has the heads of Mozart and Beethoven as a motif. Sir Georg Solti’s signed baton is another feature.
The Library Room speaks for itself and the Family Room, the smallest of the seven and seating a maximum of six people, contains photos of the family and memorabilia. A salon adjoins the enclosed Winter Garden, again on the first floor, and the adjoining terrace, accessible from the ballroom, is being refurbished with fresh paving and a covering to keep it operating in all weather. Zsolnay and Herend also have their own smaller themed dining rooms upstairs, with porcelain pieces on display.
Between Gundel and the zoo is the restaurant’s extensive garden and terrace, popular for weddings and business functions. This area is undergoing renovation and will be spruce for the warmer weather from May.
King Juan Carlos (the elephant shooter), retired Queen of The Netherlands Beatrix, Vladimir Putin, Placido Domingo and Michael Schumacher are a few more names to drop at Gundel. On this evening we are just enjoying the heady elegance of the grand room, replete with fine food, wine and music, and probably wouldn’t notice if the Queen of Sheba were at the next table.
Address: Gundel Károly út 4, District XIV
Open: Gundel Restaurant: 12noon-12midnight
Latinovits Bar: 9am-12midnight
Sunday Brunch: 11.30am-3pm
Gundel Patisserie: 9am-7pm
Reservations: (06-1) 889-8100 / (06) 30 603-2480
Lunch menu: HUF 3,900 or HUF 6,500
Sunday Brunch: HUF 6,800
A la carte:
Fois gras such as cherrywood-smoked goose liver with air-dried plum: HUF 6,600
Cold appetisers such as Venison Carpaccio with baked Beetroot: HUF 4,900
Gundel Crayfish Soup
seasoned with Fennel: HUF 4,800
Grilled Salmon Rothermere Style: HUF 9,900
Gundel Duck Trio: HUF 9,500
Vegetable Strudel with Spinach Salad: HUF 4,900