Yes, there is the architecture, the history, the abundance of excellent museums, but now when I return to Budapest, I most look forward to the food. Hungary has one of Europe’s great culinary traditions, backed by a range of unique and delicious local wines. Paprika features most famously in its cuisine, but Hungary also boasts heirloom Mangalitsa pork and Grey-cattle beef, plus some of the world’s best foie gras. Menus even offer superb Hungarian fish, often from the Danube or 48-mile-long Lake Balaton. Seven restaurants in Budapest have Michelin stars as of this writing. It should be more, but the Michelin inspectors still can’t quite seem to bring themselves to acknowledge the heights to which Central European cuisine has now risen.
Besides the selection below, I also recommend Spago by Wolfgang Puck in the Matild Palace hotel, where, in addition to the expected Asian-fusion dishes, I enjoyed soulful goulash soup with spaetzle and delicate, crispy-skinned pike perch with duck ham-infused cream.
21 Magyar Vendéglő
A short walk from the Fisherman’s Bastion near the northern end of Castle Hill, this cozy restaurant is convenient for lunch. Its location makes it more popular with tourists than locals, but the service is friendly and the traditional food satisfying. I started with a deeply flavored paprika-spiked catfish soup that was delicious, if a little perilous to eat due to pin bones in the moist fish chunks. I followed it with Esterházy-style lamb rump with creamy mustard sauce and sliced matzo ball. Our proactive waiter alerted me that he had an open bottle of 2018 Sauska Cuvée 7, one of Hungary’s finest Bordeaux-style blends, and a glass of this forceful, graceful beauty paired perfectly. (The all-Hungarian wine list is as much of a reason to come as the food.)