The extraordinary elegance of Budapest’s New York Cafe

CNN  — 

Step inside the New York Café, and you may find yourself wondering if you’ve accidentally entered the Hungarian equivalent to the Sistine Chapel.

Built in Italian Renaissance-style, with sparkling chandeliers dangling from high ceilings adorned by spectacular frescoes, it’s one of the oldest cafes in Budapest, dating back 125 years.

It looks more like a lavish palace than a place to grab a slice of cake and a coffee.

The line goes all the way down the street on Erzsébet körút, one of Budapest’s main boulevards, on the café’s busiest days, when it welcomes around 2,000 customers.

Once you’ve been ushered to a table, you’ll likely spend much of your time looking upward, admiring the marble columns and stuccoed angels, and of course, taking photos.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” Gabor Foldes, PR & Marketing Manager for the New York Palace hotel, which the café is a part of, tells CNN Travel. “People come here, take their pictures and go.”

Spectacular coffee house

Known as the "most beautiful café in the world," the New York Café is nothing short of spectacular.

The menu is made up of Hungary’s most traditional desserts, including around 16 cakes, but of course, it’s not the cuisine that everyone comes here for – it’s the magnificent setting.

And while it’s clear business is booming today, in many ways the New York Café couldn’t be further removed from its original incarnation.

The story of this very grand watering hole begins back in 1894, when the New York Life Insurance Company opened its European headquarters in Budapest and decided to build a coffee house right inside.

Although coffee was first introduced to Hungary by the Turks in the 16th century, it wasn’t until the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed in 1867 that the fashionable café culture thriving in Vienna finally took off in Budapest.

An estimated 500 coffee houses opened in the city during that time, the New York Café being one of them.

Its owners were intent on creating the “most beautiful café in the world,” and went all out to achieve just that.

“This was not just a place for the rich,” says Hungarian food critic Andras Jokuti. “It was a meeting point for poor artists.

“They just went there in the hope there will be some nice rich people who would offer them a meal.

“For example, for a nice poem for their wives, or any other services, or just to help to formulate a letter.”

This brought about the birth of a literature movement known as “Nyugat,” which took its name from a periodical that published poetry and prose by Hungarian writers.

“For us, it’s not just a café, it’s the starting point of Hungarian modern literature,” says Foldes. “All of the most famous writers and poets came here. It was crowded with writers. We are very proud of that.”

Writer’s retreat

The history of Budapest's most beautiful cafe
02:24 - Source: CNN

In fact, Hungary’s most influential newspapers were edited on the second floor of the building.

According to legend, on its opening night, a group of writers, including renowned author Molnár Ferenc, were so taken with the place, they threw the key to the main door into the Danube so that it could stay open all night.

“I don’t know if it’s true, because he [Ferenc] would only have been around 17 at the time,” says Foldes. “But it’s a great story.”

The Nyugat bar, located just above the café, is filled with photographs of some of the famous writers who began their careers here.

However, it seems there was something of a hierarchy as to where writers would sit while they were inside the café.

“The lowest part, we call it Deep Water because the not so professional artists, they were always staying there,” says Tamas Fazekas, general manager of the New York Palace Hotel.

“And the famous ones, they were upstairs … and they gave down food for these artists downstairs. And they said, “Okay, write me a story.”