A tale of two restaurants

by Monica Manolachi

Like two dots on the horizon, Bucharest and Budapest are often confused. Both are capital cities in Eastern Europe. Both begin with the same two letters and their names rhyme. Both have three syllables, the stress falls on the first one in each case and both have six letters in common. If confusion does not affect you, everything sounds like a childish word game. We somehow got used to it. Prestigious geographically impaired artists like Michael Jackson, Iron Maiden, Metallica or Lenny Kravitz used to say Hello, Budapest! before their concert started in Bucharest. The audience would boo for a minute, but would soon forgive them: their music and live presence were far more important. However, in the spring of 2012, when about 400 dozy Atletic Bilbao fans missed the Europa League final after mistakenly booking plane tickets for Budapest, things got slightly more serious.

If I said Bucharest and Budapest were both beautiful, they would say I liked them. But if I said I cannot sleep because of them, it would sound like a complaint. I am these cities and many of the feelings associated with them. I have lived in them, and they are part of me, one more than the other, like an apple and a papaya on a plate. I am the plate and they are my semicolon. When I am in one, I think about the other. When in dreams I am in the other city, the more tangible surroundings toot and bluster, roar and hum. If they took my photo in one city, they would find a foreign landscape when they checked it on the screen. And yet, with all this tumult, I never mix them up. I am the letters that make them different, like a stack of variously styled chairs.

When I used to go with my parents to the city center of Bucharest in the 1980s, I never noticed it: a one-floor restaurant, with a small terrace in warm weather, situated among ten-storey tower blocks built in the 1960s. Only after I started high school, in 1990, would I go past the Budapesta restaurant twice a day. In Romanian, the Hungarian capital name sounds feminine, therefore the ending -a. The Budapest from Bucharest sounds like a famous pop singer greeting her fans in a big square at nightfall. Have you noticed restaurants are usually categorized by ethnicity? Only the modern ones are listed by their type of cuisine: bio, steak house, vegan, seafood etc.

In the 1960s, as I found later, Bucharest was going through a period of architectural renewal. More and more people moved to the capital city. When the restaurant still used to be called Mărășești, director Lucian Bratu, a feminist avant la lettre, shot a film in several parts of the city, including the crossroads now still known as Budapesta. A Film with a Charming Girl (1966), featuring the talented Margareta Pâslaru and inspired by the French cinema of the time, proposed a new pattern of urban femininity. She had been selected to be the image of a new type of woman, different from that proposed by the communists. Her role – a wannabe famous actress – was meant to express a certain joie de vivre, hard to imagine at the time. She was attractive and audacious, capricious, even frivolous, honest, but insistent, playful, but self-possessed – too much for the epoch. However, it was the filmmakers – not the film critics or the communist activists – who envied Bratu’s breakthrough and the legend goes that Elena Ceaușescu rejected the film because the protagonist was too beautiful. Despite this, the film continued to be shown at cinemas in the outskirts of the city.

In 1973, the name of the restaurant at the crossroads of Mărășești Boulevard and Dimitrie Cantemir Boulevard was changed to Budapesta. The former boulevard reminds us of the mausoleum that commemorates the Battle of Mărășești and the soldiers and officers killed during the First World War. The latter bears the name of the author of Descriptio Moldaviae, a voivode at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The change of the restaurant name obviously added a bit of cosmopolitanism, in contrast with the nationalism reflected by its former name. Therefore, ever since the 1970s, the place has been known as Budapesta, although the location turned into a Domo household appliances shop, with a fast-food in one corner between 2004 and 2012, and is now a MaxBet casino.

Sometime after the tramway lines were added in the 1980s, an urban legend about the Budapesta restaurant began to circulate: they used to serve human organs. According to newspapers, a bartender who worked there for 30 years provided an explanation about how the legend emerged. One day, in 1985 or 1986, the police entered the restaurant, ordered the director to close it and interrogated the staff for two hours. A client complained that someone died because they ate human liver: that was the doctors’ conclusion after the autopsy. The old man, who mentioned the room had long green silky curtains and a red carpet, was sure everything was false. The restaurant had a valid contract with a slaughterhouse and the police officers could not find any incriminatory evidence. However, people became suspicious and would spy on the employees when meat was unloaded from the refrigerated van, as if they could identify it as human. For example, someone else, who lived in the neighborhood, was convinced the restaurant sold human liver and kidneys, brought from the Institute of Forensic Medicine, situated on the quayside of the Dâmbovița River. He believed so because they always had meat on the menu, whereas those years were known for food shortages. In contrast, other people were dying to have lunch there and would do anything to get in. Not just anyone could enter a restaurant. You needed lots of courage and lots of dignity. The problem was not everyone had a suit and a tie. Attracted by the luxury of the building, they would invent funny stratagems to get in: a former worker said he had a suit, but did not have a tie, so he would tie his shoe laces around his neck. He had heard the nasty rumors, but he was not afraid at all: his mother-in-law worked there as a cook, and he trusted her.

From a sociological perspective, the 1980s food shortages, electricity and water supply cut-offs contributed to an increasing anxiety regarding the future, a certain level of discomfort, both physical and psychic, caused by queuing and cold, as well as a complete disinterest in politics. The queues for food were usually formed at the back entrance of the shops, so that the authorities would not see them from the main roads, which is one of the reasons why the communist regime soon lost its legitimacy. Although nobody died because of these conditions, they favored the circulation of unfounded rumors and dark jokes.

A friend who lives nearby says he used to go there with his grandfather. In the lobby there was a huge fish tank, where he liked to watch the movements of the fish. When you entered the building, you could see the tables with chairs around them on the right, and a modern bar, equipped with a jukebox, on the left. When asked about the menu, people usually remember the goulash soup and the Tokaji wine. My friend remembers that the drinking straws were in a glass on the counter: they used to go there after a walk in the neighboring parks, when they always got thirsty.

Although I never entered the Budapesta restaurant, it was the restaurant that entered my mind like a blurred reflection. In the early 1990s, it was not really a place for girls. Only my high school colleagues used to frequent such places, and they never invited us: it was all about alcohol and how much boys can drink together. I never saw an advert for it and its exterior walls were not particularly inviting, but I knew it was there, a welcoming place with food and drinks on the menu.

At some point, the Romanian cooks and the waiters from the Budapesta restaurant went to Budapest for an exchange of experience and Hungarian cooks and waiters from the Bukarest restaurant came to Bucharest. They took the train between North and Keleti railway stations and vice versa. The Bukarest restaurant used to be situated at the meeting of Bartók Béla Avenue and Lágymányosi Street. It used to be there. Now it is just an absent site of memory. This exchange of experience happened in the past, it is true, but it will continue in the future under new names, with new faces and locations, improved dishes and modern services. I have now turned on a song by Ando Drom, which makes me think how much travel and the circulation of information have changed over the past decades. Throwing myself into the past and into another language feels good and dangerous at the same time. Unearthing a casual laid-back past in the hectic noisy present makes me see the future better, which I always imagine expansive and rich in open questions.

The shape of Bukarest from Budapest had a few avatars. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the place was known for the restaurant and the garden owned by János Appl. In the first half of the century, it turned into the Ketter Inn, which had a brasserie and a terrace: József Ketter and his son, László Ketter, belonged to a family of innkeepers. The building had arched windows, looked rather austere and lasted until the 1950s. In the following two decades, when the roads were still cobblestoned, it was called Borostyán (Amber), had a canteen and was known for its master chef István Daróczi. It had three halls, the main hall facing Bartók Béla Avenue, a hunting hall facing Lágymányosi Street and a small hall. It also had a garden sprinkled with crimson stone, open in the summer, with many tables and chairs under the horse chestnut trees. Chestnut flowers sometimes fell in the soup, but who cared. Whoever walked on the street could see a large aquarium in the middle of the garden: real carp, alive, ready to be chosen and cooked for the clients. Some of those who were young during that period remember working there and being paid, in money or food tickets. High school pupils used to bring weekly tickets to eat here. Music played and clients danced inside or in the garden.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, the restaurant was renamed as Bukarest and had a disco in the evenings. There were mititei, sheep cheese and polenta on the menu, as well as Gypsy music in the evening or at parties. The tables were separated by screens made of cattle skin. There used to be an old map of Bucharest on the wall, with depictions of the towers and the river. Like the epoch itself, the place was bleaker than before. Romanian musicians, chefs and confectioners were brought to work there. Hungarian students, who trained as waiters and attracted young clients, dubbed it Buki and could make good money back then.

In the late 1980s, the old one-storey building was demolished and an eight-storey block of flats replaced it. On the ground level, there was Expresso Bukarest. It sold oblong eclairs for 11 HUF on a side door, the price increased to 13 HUF and then to 17 HUF, but it went down soon and the business stopped. In the adjacent reshaped one-storey building, a rock club called Night Oil was opened in the 1990s. They used to organize speed dating parties and people had a lot of fun. Today, a branch office of the Unicredit Bank has replaced the restaurant and a Rossmann supermarket is where the expresso used to be.

As a student of English and Hungarian at the ELTE in the 2000s, I lived in a campus not far from Móricz Zsigmond square and used to go past the area many times a week on my way from Buda to Pest. Why did I choose to study Hungarian? Well, I wanted some freedom, I wanted to escape a meaningless job and see the world. Learning Hungarian felt like the Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. Studying languages was my island at the time, an island I have not left ever since. Whenever I pass the Budapesta crossroads from Bucharest, I am thinking of the places where I used to have lunch or dinner with friends in Budapest: the Red Lion tea house close to the Oktogon metro station or the Blue Rose restaurant on the Wesselényi Street.

Although the ROM chocolate bar promotion campaign made the news in 2013, with its tutorials, touristic memorabilia, thematic city tours and hotel sweet gifts, meant to put an end to the confusion between Bucharest and Budapest, confusion is still there, growing little by little like an exquisite work of art, mixing reality and imagination, past and present, languages and food. The two cities and the two restaurants are pairs of eyes that take my breath away. They remind me of youth, of the time when every flying thing is edible, as they say, when shame and embarrassment are just some words in the dictionary, when I listened to The Funnel of Love by Wanda Jackson. At the same time, I feel uneasy when these eyes fix me in my reveries, unexpected and uncompromising. When subtle tears form in their corners, I remember both cities witnessed me crying. Crying like the moon. When they become friendlier and make me laugh, I am not afraid of them anymore. And yet, I need to keep watching them: I do not want them to clash into an invisible and careless look. They are waiting. Like phantoms on silent screens. You are not sure what they are waiting for. You are slightly annoyed as when you try to remember and are not able to. The past, a secret treasure like a knee wound, has dried-up and is ready for display.

No matter how much you know about a city, no matter how close you get to its walls and gardens, no matter how many years you have lived in it, there will always be elusive landscapes, nooks and undiscovered angles. Even though you have moved somewhere else, you can touch its shapes with your mind, from afar. How else can one explain you are haunted by restaurants that no longer exist? Why should you care about someone’s wedding party when her husband is not alive anymore? How about the countless broken hearts left in these places? There must be some beauty in their invisibility. There must be some mystery in their reticence.

I am sure the confusion of the two cities will not stop after people read this article. The uncertainty principle will be there like a naughty satellite sending signals about new planets. Let us relax and welcome the confused. It is 9pm, I am in bare feet, listening to choros by Heitor Villa-Lobos. There is so much freedom of improvisation in this sophisticated hybrid type of music! People used to play it in bare feet. Can I walk in bare feet somewhere in the city? I would like to. Now that I am about to die – not sure if because of eating human liver or because of covid-19 – nobody will protest. Pray for me. I am this ten of hearts fallen on the street. I am nobody. I pray for you.

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