It’s well established that cafés were just as important to Budapest’s literary life as they were in Paris, Berlin, or Vienna. With cafés like Centrál and New York giving shelter and comfort to writers of the famous Nyugat movement of Hungarian writing, you can’t talk about a classic Hungarian café without mentioning the writers who frequented them.
Writers spend a lot of time toiling alone. More than most, if not all professions, their time is spent in solitude. But while certain distractions—kids, repairmen, the loud music of neighbors—are detrimental, others—the clink of glasses, the smell from the kitchen, the lively chatter of strangers—can become background music to the work. To be privy to gossip, local dramas, romantic intrigue, not to mention the stimulant of caffeine, is part of why writers and cafes go so well together. To have a place to be alone, but amongst others. Budapest’s cafés provided the background music that inspired some of Hungary’s greatest works of literature.
While some of these cafés have disappeared into history, like the notorious Japan Kávéház, which now houses a bookshop. Others have been re-invented to pay tribute to the past, while offering plenty of comforts to present-day writers and cafe aficionados.
At the top of the list of favorite old-world Hungarian cafés is Dérnyé. Located Buda-side in the historic Krisztinaváros neighborhood, what is now Dérnyé was the haunt of one of Hungary’s most internationally famous writers: Sándor Márai, whose books in English translation have become unlikely bestsellers in the States and elsewhere. Opened in 1914 by the Auguszt family (who still run several wonderful patisseries and bakeries in Budapest), the parquet floors, small marble-topped tables and semi-circular bar add a touch of Paris to what is a very distinctly Central European feeling room, which also features tiles of the famous porcelain artist Zsolnay.
Dérnyé owner Kristof Kovács observed in the Budapest Times, “Coffee houses then were institutions in Budapest and Vienna, and had comforts that often weren’t found at home, such as telephone, heating, and lighting. They became a second home for artists and writers or an office for doctors and lawyers. The city helped coffee houses to develop facilities that it couldn’t itself, and granted them tax relief to stay open 24 hours.”
If writers can’t find a place to sit at the popular Dérnyé, they won’t have to leave Buda to discover another of Budapest’s historical writers’ cafés. Getting closer to the Danube is the recently re-opened Hadik Kávéház. Frequented by the whimsical writer Frigyes Karinthy, the ‘Hungarian Proust’ Zsigmond Móricz, and Anna Édes author Dezső Kosztolányi, the Hadik was the New York Café of the Buda side; maybe not quite as fabled, but equally beloved. It was not loved enough, however, to prevent a near 70 year closure, when the café’s place in literary history was only marked with a plaque by the door.
It is said that Zsigmond Móricz compared the original Hadik’s interior to the waiting room of a train station, calling it an “overlit granary”, while Karinthy declared it to be like sitting inside of a paper bag. Its new incarnation didn’t retain the underwhelming sense of interior decoration, but it did stay minimalist with exposed brick walls and earth tones. And the coffee, deemed undrinkable in the cafe’s 20th century literary heyday, now gets high ratings. “It’s a good place to write because it’s comfortable, and quiet,” says British/Hungarian writer Jennifer Walker. “It’s still lively, but away from the downtown chaos – there is still a trace of inspiration lingering in the air, but the atmosphere is not so overwhelming that it’s distracting. Hadik still plays a role on the contemporary Hungarian literary scene with their regular literary salons.”
History always has its charms. Anna Ott, the Hadik café’s art director, related a Hadik legend to the Budapest Times: “Karinthy once wanted to learn how fast news was spreading between Buda and Pest. So he told a joke at Hadik then went to Centrál one hour later, where a man was already telling the same joke with resounding laughter.” While it’s hard to pinpoint where contemporary writers work, the Hadik is the office away from home for Academy Award Son of Saul director László Nemes, and there is a framed letter by him to the staff on the wall to prove it.
With the appearance of co-working spaces and wifi everywhere, a need for such shared café/offices has diminished and the younger generations of writers tend to prefer the less formal surroundings of Budapest’s Third Wave coffee shops, not to mention artist friendly pubs like Kisüzem and Nappali Kávéház. But you can still find the remnants of Budapest’s literary past in its famous cafés, where the authors live on through their books, so lovingly crafted in the elegant, decadent cafés of Golden Age Budapest.
Want to learn more about the history of Hungarian café culture? Come along on our Sweet & Coffeehouse Walk, and see living history while sipping espresso!
Curious about Hungarians famous golden age writers? Check our Recommended Reading list for links to some of their translated works.