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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Budapest Sniffs Coffee Comeback

BUDAPEST, Hungary -- At Budapest's lovingly restored 19th-century Central Kavehaz, Geza Csermely writes gypsy rock musicals in a neat hand on the cafe's paper placemats.

"You can sit all day and have breakfast, lunch and dinner," said the 56-year-old Roma writer, sitting at his regular table amid the hubbub of the crowded room. "The noise only makes things better."

At the Ponyva Regeny, or Pulp Fiction, cafe, Julia Imre, 19, sits for hours over a single banana milk shake, chatting to a friend beneath bookshelves lined with everything from poetry and novels to a dusty biography of Che Guevara.

"I like the feeling because we sit and talk and we can hear each other," said Imre, a law student, adding that she enjoyed not having to compete with a blaring television or disco music.

Move over, Turkish baths. Budapest's other Turkish-inspired institution, the traditional coffeehouse, is making a comeback.

Closed by the Communists in 1949, coffee-houses where people may sit for hours, write all day, meet lovers, debate politics, drink one cup of coffee or eat three square meals, have been reviving bit by bit since communism's demise in 1989.

"The Communists closed them because they couldn't put a spy at every table," said university lecturer Noemi Saly, a student of the Budapest kavehaz - coffeehouse - scene.

Under communism, coffeehouses became industrial and institutional canteens. The fabled New York Kavehaz, stripped of chandeliers and with marble walls and mirrors covered by plywood, was reopened as a sporting goods store.

Before calamity struck, Budapest was known throughout Europe as the "city of cafes," Saly said. She distinguishes coffeehouses from coffee shops, designed for a quick brew, and pubs, beer halls and bistros, where the main aim is to drink.

"All the democratic revolutions were born in coffeehouses," she said.

"Fascist and communist revolutions were born in the bistros - beer for the Germans, vodka for the Russians. Those revolutions want manipulable people and coffee is the contrary."

At the turn of the century, Budapest had almost 600 full-service coffeehouses and another 400 so-called "little cafes," serving a population of less than a million. One main boulevard claimed more than 60 all to itself.

"It was a world record at the time," said Saly, whose apartment overlooking the Danube River is crammed with books and photographs recording the history of the Budapest cafe scene.

Coffeehouses, which became popular in the 18th century, were democratic places where merchants and talc-spattered barbers rubbed shoulders with counts and dukes.

An English visitor to Budapest remarked on the mixing of the classes - and how "un-English" it was, Saly said. Journalists, musicians, artists and writers mingled freely with doctors, lawyers, politicians and members of other professions.

Poets didn't spend much, but waiters turned a blind eye because, as one astute proprietor noted, poets attract beautiful women and beautiful women lure rich men.

The Turks, who also developed Hungary's hot mineral spring baths, introduced coffee to Hungary when they seized most of its territory in the 16th century. Hungarians at first spurned the dark, bitter brew. But after the Turks were driven out in the 17th century, Hungarian students and nobles who traveled to Western Europe discovered coffee anew, and the kavehaz was born.

Hungary's first recorded coffeehouse was founded by a Serb in nearby Szentendre in 1696. The idea spread like wildfire.

Re-creating the coffeehouse tradition has required dedication and deep pockets. Hungarian pharmaceuticals entrepreneur Imre Somody spent on the order of 300 million forints (more than $1 million) - to restore the Central Kavehaz, founded in 1892, said cafe manager Zsolt Forgacs.