Saturday, February 28, 2009

Buddha's Belly

Lisa+Steele+BudapestSitting on a train from Vienna to Budapest with a colleague who also dabbles in food writing I arrived at a revelation: it is much more mentally healthy to approach restaurant criticism in Budapest with a generous, if not naïve, spirit. You are bound to enjoy yourself and your meal more. My colleague’s attitude towards even some of the most odious, philistine establishments in the city was one of a Zen-like acceptance and appreciation. He was even quick to praise a late-night establishment that has a policy of charging 2,000 forints should you happen to vomit at your table (I guess this happens enough there that they actually need a policy). As a result, he is rarely upset or disappointed.

Unfortunately, I know too much about how restaurants operate to keep his level of sangfroid. For instance, I know that restaurateurs can recoup a bundle before the place even opens by taking under the table cash – in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars – just to sign on to sell a particular line of beer or tobacco. I know the shysterism management directs against their staff to either siphon off their tips or wages. But, ultimately, the buck stops with you, and wait staff, in some cases, are forced to cheat you if they want to make a living at their job. The list of tricks employed is long and varied, from watering drinks to reselling leftovers, to adding a gratuity charge without specifying it as such.

Further adding to my cynicism about dining in Budapest is the sloppy, erratic service. The examples of bizarre service have almost nothing to do with the exclusivity of the restaurant. For example, at Klassz, one of Budapest’s best, the waiter arrived after about twenty minutes, took my date’s order, then walked away as though I wasn’t even there. At a worker’s lunch canteen, the counter help literally yelled at me because I ordered a beet salad with a vegetable stew, two items that are traditionally not coupled, according to local eating traditions. Wary of that, the next night at Ellátó, I asked the bar staff what side went well with the entree I had ordered, only to be chewed out again because they are not “a fancy French restaurant where things like that matter.” Other dining slights have included being shortchanged 10,000 forints at Pata Negra, being denied a glass of water during the longest heat wave in recent Hungarian history at Bamboo Sziget, and having the waiter pour himself a glass of wine from my bottle of Pinot Noir at BORlaBOR. More endearingly, at a now-closed eatery, a waiter offered to pick the pork from my bean soup when reminded him I had asked for a vegetarian dish.

I am not sure how my colleague would have handled these situations. I tend to complain, shoot dirty looks, up and leave, then write nasty things on chew. Hence, the list of restaurants that I actually frequent is surprisingly low. It has gotten to the point where I am afraid to revisit a restaurant I actually like because service and quality of food are so erratic in this city. So, next time, instead of a date, mabe I will bring along my pocket-sized Buddha, to remind me that cynicism breeds cynicism, and it is also OK to come to a meal with an open mouth and mind.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


Sophist said...

"counter help literally yelled at me because I ordered a beet salad with a vegetable stew"

It's good to hear that I am not the only one suffering from this kind of foodism. I've been served by one head waiter for 16 years. He still refuses to serve me a cucumber salad with sour cream dressing as a side dish to pork cutlets in lecso. The compromise we've arrived at is that he serves me the cucumber salad as a starter rather than a side dish.

He is the best waiter in town, just customer service is less of a priority than traditional service - perhaps for Hungarian food culture, this is a good thing.

Mokus said...

Sophist: I have been on the road for a while so I kind of rushed this post. I could have fleshed out the incident a bit more: she kept yelling "Nem hagyományos, nem hagyományos!" at me as though I had set off some sort of alarm. the cashier just rolled her eyes and took my money, which was, apparently, quite hagyományos.

Best waiter in town? Care to dish?