“I’m trying to figure out where I should get dinner,” I began. “You wouldn’t have any recommendations by chance, would you?”

“Hmm…” Staring at the vaulted ceiling, I could tell she was thinking. “That depends on what you like. What kind of foods do you enjoy?”

“Well, it is my first time in Hungary,” I admitted, “So how about something Hungarian?”

Folding a towel, she laughed. “I think you’re in the right place.”

I laughed too. “I would hope so.”

“The restaurant Panorama here at the hotel is very good,” said Dorina. “You can get lots of Hungarian food there.”

“You’re not just telling me that because you work here, are you?”

“Never! I wouldn’t dream of it. My family used to go there when I was a young girl to celebrate special events.”

“So you’re from Budapest, then?”


I weighed the evidence. Her story seemed plausible enough.

“Well, you know more about what’s here than I do,” I said. “So it sounds good to me.” It was the moment of truth.

“So,” I started, moving my right hand closer to hers, “When do you get off?”


“When do you get off tonight?”

She bore into me, eyes the same dark brown as my own. The silence was agonizing.

“I… I’m sorry. You seem like a really nice guy, but I’m seeing someone. I don’t think my boyfriend would like it.”

Crap — so much for that.

Were I a dog, my tail would have been firmly between my legs as I marched away down the hall in shame and into the brass-accented interior of the elevator with more mirrors than Versailles. Budapest is sometimes referred to as the “Paris of the East,” but this is really a misnomer. Rather, Paris is the “Budapest of the West.” The Hungarian capital was the first in continental Europe to build its own underground metro system (opened in 1896, it is the world’s second-oldest metro system and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and its cozy setting along the shores of the mighty Danube has long been a haven for writers and artists. As one of the most important cities in Central Europe both historically and culturally, its dining scene is, naturally, nothing short of impressive.

Still smarting, I took Dorina’s advice anyway and strode into Panorama, the Gellért’s premier restaurant. If the baths were over-the-top in their exquisiteness, then this was equally so. The palatial main dining hall was all white marble, grandiose chandeliers and antiquated portraits, the type of setting that screamed stereotypical high society Europe. The place was, in all honesty, the swankiest establishment I’d dined at since my high school prom all the way back in 2008. It was also, I discovered, equally expensive.

The subtle tunes of an authentic five-piece gypsy band wafting through the air, I tucked into my breaded chicken breast with buttered new potato and cucumber salad topped with sour cream (3,900 forint; about $17.30), one of the specialties of Executive Chef Jaksics József, a figure who’s somewhat of a local celebrity in Budapest’s dining scene. All around couples nuzzled each other in blissful élan. The oozing romance was almost too much. Taking a bite of the tender, lightly breaded meat, it practically melted in my mouth with stunning suppleness. There’s good food, and then there’s good food; this was the latter. An understated Riesling — aged just a few years but boasting a maturity in its flavor — recommended by the tuxedo-clad waiter complemented the food perfectly. Dry but not too dry, it also had a full-bodied taste that, for some reason, reminded me faintly of pear. When had I become a wine snob? Either way it was incredible.

As the wax of the dark blue candle burned low, the band’s tune slowed. Now it was almost mournful, a story of lost love and bygone days all but forgotten amid the dust of time. I found myself ruminating on such a time, when men in sharp suits and bowler hats checked their pocket watches and shared their adventures in Africa or the South Pacific, while women wore silk dresses accented by a profusion of ruffles and lace. That was well over a century ago, but in this moment it didn’t matter.

“You have a request, sir?”

What? Looking up, the gypsy band’s oboe player was standing over me, his weathered face crowned by scraggly gray hair beaming.

I was at a loss. What should I ask for? Brahms, Bach? Neither was Hungarian. Tchaikovsky? Probably wouldn’t go over too well, given Hungary’s history with Russia.

“I don’t know,” I stammered, my strong northwestern US accent immediately dispelling any doubts as to where I might have been born, “Maybe something traditional?”

“Traditional, OK,” he replied in a gravelly voice, sauntering back to his equally well-dressed musical compatriots.

Sure enough, the music picked up, a jolly tune evocative of the meandering Danube and Tisza Rivers and rolling hills that define Hungary’s topography. Light, but not superficially so, it had a firmness underneath its light airs not unlike the chair I sat in — soft on its surface, but hard underneath. Or, I suddenly realized, a duality just like Budapest.

“Some nice Hungarian brandy, sir?” Now it was the waiter, his accent as posh as the setting.

Brandy? Sure. I wasn’t drunk, and my adoptive home of Germany wasn’t exactly known for its spirits.

“You will like it,” he said confidently. “It’s very good, yes. I will drink with you.”

Wait staff taking shots with customers at a place as over-the-top as this? I was sold.

Mere seconds later, he returned, bringing with him two shot glasses and a plain bottle of clear liquid. Even bottled, the stuff smelled stronger than rubbing alcohol.

“Now, we drink,” he stated, pouring the liquid into the glasses. It was a good thing he did so far away from the candle.

I said a silent prayer as I swallowed the shot in one gulp. I immediately chased it with a hearty gulp of water, not because the alcohol content was unbearable (apparently, it’s only around 80 proof, roughly the same as vodka), but because it was drier than bark. Yuck.

“Would you like another drink, sir?” the waiter asked. How the heck could he be unfazed by such a concoction?

“No thank you,” I said emphatically, holding up my hands in wild gesticulation to emphasize the point. He understood.

“Strong isn’t it?”

“That’s an understatement.”

“But,” he added, “We Hungarians have had to be strong in past days. People might not always see this today, but that was the way it was. Strong drinks for strong people!”

I chewed on that nugget of information.

“Strong, yes,” I said, “In more ways than one.”

Cincopa WordPress plugin

Featured image: Photo Credit: Benjamin Mack/GALO Magazine.