The history of the country’s most famous restaurant began in the 1860s, when the opening of a zoo was accompanied by a new restaurant in City Park. The establishment was managed by János Klemens, replaced by Ferenc Wampetich in 1889. Wampetich was commissioned to build a new building, the one that can be seen today, in place of the old restaurant. Wampetich had the restaurant rebuilt with architect Bauer Ervin for the millennium celebrations of 1896. The name Wampetich quickly reached the ears of everyone in Pest, the restaurant was even mentioned in songs, with writers, politicians, artists and their entourage often visit. Wampetich’s son died young, while in his later years the owner could not modernize the restaurant. And so it was that in 1910 the already legendary establishment was taken over by Károly Gundel, who had emigrated to Hungary from Bavaria 13 years earlier. Gundel, of course, put the restaurant under his own name.
Translation by Tamás Vaski
Károly Gundel’s talent in the service industry was second to none, he treated all his guests as if they had just visited us. The new restaurant quickly surpassed even its predecessor, as Gundel had begun to locate dishes that would form the foundations of modern Hungarian cuisine. Gundel pancakes are common knowledge, but few people know the whereabouts of dishes ranging from breaded chicken to chicken paprikash and Hungarian cream puffs, just about every big hit in Hungarian cuisine comes from here. Gundel was the first to serve cucumber salad, a truly luxurious product at the time, as cucumbers were not common in Hungary. This is also where Hungarian trifles, Rákóczi cheesecake and Palóc soup were born. In fact, Gundel even extended the reputation of the gulyás to a wider circle.
Following the successful operation of the restaurant, Gundel took over the equally legendary Gellért Hotel and Royal Hotel restaurants. In 1939, the name Gundel was synonymous with Hungarian hospitality. During the New York World’s Fair in 1939, he was responsible for managing the restaurant in the Hungarian pavilion. He was determined to stick to ingredients from home, so a year before the fair he sent seeds to New York farmers, who ended up growing tomatoes, peppers and other Hungarian vegetables. In photos from the time, people are seen sitting on the stairs between the pavilion and the restaurant above, waiting to get to Gundel.
In 1949 Gundel became state property and for a short time even its name was changed to May First. But the success of previous years had not passed without a trace, and even menacing communist leaders knew that Gundel should remain Gundel, so the restaurant’s name was quickly returned. Fortunately, he was even able to maintain his quality for a period during the national collapse of gastronomy, as Elek Réhberger remained chef until 1957. He was known to have carried on the legacy of the Gundel “family” in the restaurant. But goulash communism also reached Gundel, and its standards soon fell due to the compulsory provision of industrial catering. Even after the regime change, the restaurant was looking for its place, the owners came and went. Now, however, it looks like that place has been found.
Gundel also had to close last year due to Covid, but this closure was like the spark of a new beginning. The restaurant was taken over by Eventrend Group, appointing Gundel-educated Viktor Moldován as head chef. With András Wolf as business leader, the two brought back the shine of the classic Gundel.
They didn’t want to “rethink” the already exceptional foods that started their conquests of excellence here, but they wanted to rethink them. The mythical dishes have been put back on the menu, without unnecessary modifications. Chicken paprikash, Palóc soup, Hungarian Wiener Schnitzel and all their friends are available like in any other Hungarian restaurant, but now in decent portions, nicely presented.
Changes were needed, however, because what was served a hundred years ago may not hold up in today’s culinary world. The Gundel pancakes are a prime example of this, as the sour, low-quality chocolate sauce made from artificial cocoa powder has been removed and replaced with a dessert of abundant nuts, real chocolate and exceptional ingredients, including even Károly Gundel would be proud.
The two periods meet in chicken paprikash, as one chicken is cooked in the classic school style (the old school left the stew out of the stew), while the other chicken is cooked in minutes to keep it salted (but not raw).
The indoor bar has been completely refurbished, I wouldn’t use the word modern as it seems more like a mix between period vibe with a bit of Gatsby luxury, peacock blue and gold linings. There is a carriage in the middle of the room, where Roma musicians often perform their legendary café songs as they once did. But for the first time in history, female Roma musicians are also performing.
In recent years, the Gundel name has been met with negative and positive opinions, mostly negative, since our generation has never been able to achieve its former prestige, and there have been years when Gundel was on the way to “expensive but average”. “It will take time to regain its former glory, but I am certain that if, given my current experiences, I need to offer a restaurant to a foreign friend, I will suggest Gundel. Once again, this restaurant can shine like before, with its great classic dishes and adherence to Károly Gundel’s legendary approach: “we are not cheap, but at our place everyone can find a dish that suits his taste”.
Photos and featured photo by Péter Csákvári/Hungary Today