111 Andrássy út
Pest, District VI
Tel: 36 1 483 1355
Widely considered to be one of the best kitchens anywhere east of the old Iron Curtain, Baraka has only gotten better since moving in spring 2006 from a beloved downtown location to a slicker, bigger, and less-crowded spot inside the Andrássy Hotel, at the far end of the city's favorite boulevard. Tables in the space-age banquet hall (long and dark, with black and purple walls and silver trim) are separated by pewter vases filled with tall, fresh lilies. The staff is very helpful and knowledgeable about all kinds of Hungarian wines—a region where most of us need guidance. Prices aren't cheap—main courses start at $25—but are always worth it: A wing of pan-seared red snapper, drizzled with porcini butter, arrives on a fragrant cloud of ginger mashed potatoes, and seared goose liver is served on toasted brioche in a port–red currant sauce. Bargain hunters should make a weekday lunch reservation and order two courses of the same creative cooking for around $15.
43–49 Erzsébet Körút
Tel: 36 1 321 0340
Not all Hungarian restaurants are cobwebby places with old carpets and candles. Opened in 2005 on a posh, Mayfair-like stretch of busy Erzsébet körút, Hungarian vintner József Bock's Bock Bisztro serves up tasty local specialties in an airy, modern dining room. The menu includes burgers and other international standards, but the real winners here are traditional preparations of locally sourced meats, such as bread crumb–encrusted suckling pig or slow-roasted, paprika-glazed ox cheeks. Best of all, dinner for two, including a bottle of a great local vintage, can be had here for less than $75. There's also a wine shop and deli where you can purchase small bites (sausages, cheese, olives) and bottles to go.—Evan Rail
Open Mondays through Saturdays 12 pm to midnight.
3 Sas Utca
Tel: 36 1 266 0835
Close to St. Stephen's Basilica, Borkonyha ("wine kitchen") opened in December 2010 to rave reviews that highlighted its strong Hungarian wine list, including about 200 hard-to-find bottles and around 40 varieties by the glass. But even beyond the bor, Borkonyha deserves attention for its konyha's inventive take on modern Hungarian cuisine—updated homegrown fare such as suckling pig carpaccio and Mangalica pork loin with porcini and crispy rosemary potatoes grown in Somogy County, south of scenic Lake Balaton. While most restaurants operating at this culinary level go all-out with ultraformal old-world service, Borkonyha's staff remains remarkably relaxed yet attentive and professional. Their manner suits the dressed-down decor: dark tile floors and matching dark tables with lighter-colored walls tastefully peppered with antique photographs and a few chalkboards listing the specials. High points: Mangalica anything, the dill-scented rice milk with dill sorbet for dessert, and Jószef Bock's 2007 Syrah, a charismatic local take on a hearty red.—Evan Rail
Open Mondays through Saturdays noon to midnight.
4-5 Liszt Ferenc tér
Pest, District VI
Tel: 36 1 344 6303
A mover and shaker in the Liszt Ferenc tér scene, this three-level place, with a huge terrace of canvas chairs in summer, has a fabulous Danish Modern–meets-dungeon decor and an extensive menu ranging all the way from maté to exotic teas in the first-floor café to veal tournedos with goose liver and fogás (a fish from Lake Balaton) in the upstairs restaurant. The hip factor is raised by the fact that the owners also stage the annual Sziget festival—the Hungarian Lollapalooza.
9 Károlyi Mihály Utca
Pest, District V
Tel: 36 1 266 2110
Originally opened in 1887, Café Central quickly became the center of the city's intellectual life, spawning important periodicals and literary movements, maintaining a library of reference books, and subscribing to over 200 newspapers for its reading poles, only to be shuttered in 1949. Rescued and reopened by a local businessman in 2006, it may no longer be a breeding ground for Nobel laureates, but for a fix of Austro-Hungarian café culture, this legendary kávéház on the Pest side of the Elisabeth Bridge remains a standout. A renovation in late 2010 brought in a new manager (sourced from one of the city's toniest restaurants) and cocktail bar, plus an updated dinner menu of such Continental classics as grilled chicken suprême, Vienna-style schnitzel with creamy potato salad, and slow-roasted veal cutlets with spicy vegetable lecsó. Once again, the Central can be highly recommended for far more than just coffee and cakes.—Updated by Evan Rail
Open daily 8 am to midnight.
17 Sas útca
Pest, District V
Tel: 36 1 311 0053
Kör is one of the perennial best in town, thanks to chef Ádám Répás, who uses seasonal ingredients and bases his menus on Hungarian comfort food, then twists and lightens for the modish palate. Accordingly, the antique tables in the ocher-walled bistro next to the basilica—and, in summer, the terrace tables—are always full of a cross section of Budapesters: the arts crowd, dressed-up ladies, and (a lot of) expatriates. A list of daily specials augments the likes of roast salmon with lemon balm sauce and potato croquettes—also available (as is everything) in a smaller portion at a smaller price. This is the place to acquire your Hungarian sweet tooth: The expert pastry chef turning out cheese dumplings with hot fruits-of-the-forest sauce and gâteau Gerbeaud is Répás's grandma. It's also open for breakfast.
Closed Sundays; cash only.
4 Ráday Utca
Tel: 36 1 219 0696
Lined with an array of trendy bars, Pest's Ráday utca is a destination for upscale pub crawls. But when it comes to upscale dining, nothing on the strip, and few restaurants in all of Budapest, comes close to matching Costes. Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira, who trained with Ferran Adrià, prepares dishes with a touch of El Bulli innovation: creamy kohlrabi soup with crunchy dumplings, miniature oxtail tortellini, and blue-cheese ice cream with a spicy ginger granité, for example. The dining room, decorated in shades of bronze and cream with intimate booths, is similarly decadent, which seems to suit the mostly foreign crowd—a mix of British, French, and Russian power players (and just plain players). While the synchronized, white-glove service can be a bit heavy-handed, dinner here makes for the sort of luxurious night out that the recession has made scarce. If you splurge on the multicourse tasting menus, don't skimp on the wine pairings, which feature lesser-known producers such as Austria's Szigeti and Hungary's Csaba Demeter and Homonna—Evan Rail
Open Fridays and Saturdays noon to midnight.
7 Balassi Bálint Utca
Tel: 36 1 373 0028
Trendy Budapesters and fabulous expats spend hours—and whole paychecks—at the city's three über-cool Culinaris food shops, luxury delis filled with an unashamedly posh selection of high-end cheeses, rare olive oils, snobby chocolates, and fine wines. The second Pest branch, opened in 2009, combines the luxury grocery of the earlier locations with a very cool lunch counter and café (which, sadly, isn't currently open past midafternoon). Located near Parliament, the bistro serves up an easygoing mix of Hungarian and international cuisine: buttery lamb chops with peppery curried lentils, rich chanterelle risotto, chicken tartine with creamy bufala mozzarella and basil pesto, and smoky duck quesadillas with sweet tomato salsa. Come for your midday meal, shop for wine and distilled pálinka (brandy) to take home as gifts, or pick up a picnic lunch to eat in the grassy park in front of Parliament or elsewhere along the Danube. Or just bring back a bunch of goodies to make your hotel minibar insane with jealousy.—Evan Rail
Restaurant open Mondays through Saturdays 8 am to 3 pm and Sundays 10 am to 3 pm; deli open Mondays through Saturdays 9 am to 8 pm, Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.
2 Állatkerti út
Pest, District XIV
Tel: 36 1 468 4040
Maybe you're embarrassed to obey your swanky hotel's concierge and heed the advice of every guidebook ever written, but in the case of Gundel: Get over it. Just dress in finery, order up your chariot, sweep into the park, and allow yourself to be ushered to your table in the Art Nouveau palace that first opened in 1894 (and is now owned by restaurateur George Lang and cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder). As the waiter, just this side of obsequious, snaps your virgin napkin, and you spear your goose liver with Tokaji and Hungarian truffles with your sterling-silver fork…just yield. Oh, and consider a second mortgage.
9 Klauzal tér
Pest, District VII
Tel: 36 1 321 3622
Only open for lunch, this mom-and-pop shop is run by a Marlon Brando look-alike whose recommendations are not to be taken lightly—not so much because you're thinking of The Godfather, but because everything is excellent and filling. Favorites include tender stewed pork with house-made noodles, and peppers stuffed with a mix of pork, rice, and spices in a savory tomato sauce. Echoing an earlier era, photos of Hungarian celebrities from the 1970s adorn the wood-paneled walls, and self-serve seltzer bottles sit on the tables (which are covered in red-and-white checked cloths, of course), but be careful, or you'll pull a Marx Brothers on your lunchmates. Prices are similarly old-fashioned: Even with appetizers, drinks, and a dessert, like the wonderful shredded-apple cake, it would be hard for most couples to cross $30. The experience of being served Hungarian home cooking by what appears to be Don Corleone, however, is priceless.
Closed Sundays and Mondays. Lunch only.
2 Liszt Ferenc tér
Pest, District VI
Tel: 36 1 413 1482
Menza is partly a gag, taking its name and decor from the Communist-era cafeterias that once dotted the city. But it also serves excellent simple cooking at moderate prices: Main courses, like tender roast baby chicken with timbale of baby spinach or hearty paprika-inflected fisherman's soup of pike, perch, zander, and trout, hover around $10. The retro vibe, value-for-money ratio, and first-rate people-watching have made Menza the destination on busy Liszt Ferenc tér for artsy scenesters and business types loosening their neckties after-hours. If you can't reserve a table in advance, come by around 5:30 or 6 and grab a drink before dinner: You won't get kicked off your table when you finally decide to eat, and you'll have even more time watching the scene. Prices are low enough in the evening, but weekday lunch specials dip even more: two filling courses for about $5.
Lunch and dinner daily.
16 Széchenyi Utca
Tel: 36 1 269 3802
Momotaro Ramen, an informal noodle bar located in Pest, not far from Szabadság tér, wouldn't be out of place in Hong Kong or Shanghai. Dishes are cheap, filling, and extremely popular with the city's Chinese community. One of the best of the numerous ramen dishes on the Taipei-style menu is house noodles with cabbage, pork, and pickled eggs; pork sticky buns are fluffy and tender. Even basic dishes, such as pork fried rice, are a refreshing change of pace after you've overdosed on the hearty local fare of goulash and Mangalica (Hungarian woolly hog). Make sure you have cash before settling onto a stool at the bar—credit cards are not accepted.—Evan Rail
Open daily 11 am to 10 pm.
7–8 Vörösmarty Tér
Hungary Pest, 1051
Tel: 36 1 429 9023
Onyx, on Pest's pulsing Vörösmarty Square, is one of the rare Michelin-starred restaurants in all of post-Communist eastern Europe and also one of the few to be run by a woman—executive chef Szabina Szulló. In the kitchen, Szulló combines local ingredients with international techniques and vice versa: Monkfish fillets are paired with bacon from Mangalica hogs and a sauce of stewlike vegetable lecsó, while beef tenderloin goes even more tender with a cushion of buttery Hungarian foie gras. If your tastes run to minimalism, the ostentatious decor, including oversize floral and fleurs-de-lis patterns on the walls and onyx, walnut, and gilded accents, can be overwhelming. But the excellent old-world service makes up for any atmospheric shortcomings, and the restaurant's range of top-shelf Hungarian bottles has few equals (it includes such revered names as József Bock, Isztván Szepsy, and Judit Bodo's cultish Bott Pince, the Tokaj-based maker of dry, steely whites). With just 55 seats, dinner reservations are almost always necessary.—Evan Rail
Open Tuesdays through Fridays noon to 2:30 pm and 6:30 to 11 pm, Saturdays 6:30 to 11 pm.