The Brancatelli File



January 14, 1999 -- Maybe all you need to know about the state of the Hungarian economy can be found at any curb in central Pest, the business district of the bifurcated capital of Budapest. For every snazzy new Honda Accord or Jeep Grand Cherokee there is a tinny, tiny Trabant, the hideously ugly, unreliable econobox once manufactured in East Germany.

Budapest residents still drive these relics because that is what they can afford. Hungary's 10-year sprint from "goulash communism" to democratic capitalism has been remarkable. But the society has fractured. There are conspicuously consuming haves and nervous have-not-too-muchs.

In a city where the hotel business centers offer seamless Internet access for $25 an hour and presidential suites for $2,000 a night, dinner for two in a local restaurant is considered costly at 2,200 forints, or about US$11. Supermarket shelves are stocked with Evian, Czech beer and American pancake syrup, but the bread racks are crowded with senior citizens calculating how many rolls they can afford at 7.5 forints (four cents) each. Hungary is on track for membership in both NATO and the European Community, but the average income is just $400 a month.

Don't misunderstand. Come to Budapest on business and you will be enthralled. The pubs and restaurants are filled, the famed Váci shopping promenade is buzzing with activity and locals are relentlessly upbeat about the future. This is not Moscow. No one is selling their personal belongings on the street. But you see homeless people here now and the aviation authority admits a Swedish company won the contract to build the new passenger terminal at Ferihegy International because no Hungarian company could afford the monthly nut on the US$120 million project.

Keep it in mind when you arrive. Budapest and Hungary aren't cruising in the fast lane so much as wheezing down the road in an ancient Trabant that may blow its engine at any time.

In Pest's central business district, the Kempinski Hotel Corvinus, an ultra-modern hotel decorated with Hungarian art, is unquestionably the top stop in town. ... A few blocks away, on the Danube waterfront at the foot of Budapest's picturesque Chain Bridge, are three other top-notch properties. The Marriott is an ugly monstrosity from the outside, but warm and clubby as a London club inside. The Inter-Continental and the Atrium Hyatt are both undergoing extensive guestroom and public-room upgrades. ... The Hotel Taverna is not up to the standards of the others, but it is smack in the middle of the Váci and more Hungarian than the others. ... Over on the Buda side is the Hilton, an amazing architectural specimen that incorporates the ruins of a 13th Century church and the baroque façade of a 17th Century college. Unfortunately, the Hilton is off the beaten business track. You'll need to cab it to almost all of your appointments.

George Lang, the Hungarian restaurateur best known for Café Des Artistes in New York, now operates Gundel, Budapest's most famous dining room. It's astronomically expensive by local standards (about $150 for dinner for two), but Gundel is grand dining in classic style. Make a reservation. ... Cyrano on the Váci is a small, absurdly stylish bistro that's especially popular for lunch (about $40 for two) with the Budapest business elite. Make a reservation. ... Just a few blocks from the business hotels in the central business district is Méleg Vendéglö. Genuinely local (in other words, smoky and unprepossessing), the prices are low ($20 for dinner for two, including booze) for good Hungarian cuisine. ... Gerbeaud is Budapest's justifiably world famous coffeehouse. The cakes, pastry and chocolates are gorgeous to look at, sinfully delicious and served in a marvelous 19th Century café. Dessert and coffee for two run about $15.

Open just five weeks, Terminal 2/B at Ferihegy International is slick and modern with nice shops and decent restaurants. All carriers use it except Malev, the Hungarian airline, which occupies Terminal 2/A, an older, but equally nice, facility. ... Best way to travel between the city and the airport: the airport-operated Minibus Service. Eight-passenger minivans will take you to any address in Budapest for just 1,200 forints (about $5.75). Just stop at the desk beyond customs and immigration, pay your fare and off you go.

Beware the so-called "hyena" cabs, which are largely unregulated. Use only hotel cabs, which offer flat rates or reliable, metered fares. … Hungarian is an extremely difficult language, but most local business people speak some English. German is also widely spoken and many prices are posted in Deutschmarks. … The better hotels all have city maps and the central business district is easy to walk. … Tipping is expected of foreigners. When in doubt, tip. A few hundred forints go a long way. … The Budapest Sun, an English-language weekly, is available at most newsstands. The paper also has an excellent Web site.

Hungary practiced pragmatic "goulash communism," not the inflexible Marxist-Leninist brand, but Hungarians didn't waste a minute changing their society when the country went democratic in 1989. Hungarians aren't so much angry at their former Soviet masters as dismissive of them as fools and idiots. In fact, it's almost as if the Soviets were never here. You'll hear people arguing more about the Compromise of 1867 (it created the old Austro-Hungarian Empire) or the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (it codified Hungary's huge territorial concessions after World War I) than the Communist era. Still, a visit to the spectacular Parliament building to view the Eternal Flame monument, dedicated to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, is sobering.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.