Lifestyle

Urban Betyár: Serving Up a Slice of Hungarian Cuisine and Culture in the Heart of Budapest

Urban Betyár is a recently opened restaurant serving up modern iterations on Hungarian cuisine in the heart of Budapest. A few weeks ago, we sat down for an interview with Gábor Leidal, the restaurant’s marketing director, who spoke to us about the meaning, ideas, and goals behind this unique restaurant.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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What does ‘Urban Betyár’ [Urban Outlaw] mean? What do you want people to think of when they hear this name?

First and foremost, we would like this word combination to be associated with us, that when they hear it, they think of our restaurant. The word ‘urban’ has become a bit trendy recently [in Hungary], but we would like to bring a bit of tradition to the table as well.

That’s where the term ‘betyár’ comes into play; every country has its own particular type of historical figure who operated outside of the law [editor’s note: Betyár was a term used to describe Hungarian outlaws, chiefly on the Hungarian plain, who robbed trains, carriages, and whatever else they could get their hands on; a great degree of romance became attached to them, and numerous folk songs and ballads memorialize the exploits of famous ‘betyárs’]. This naturally takes things a bit into the realm of romance and whimsy, but we have balanced that our with our folk culture museum, located in the basement. Ultimately, then we took a complex topic, and rolled it all into one word, betyár.

‘Urban’ refers to the fact that we do in fact operate in a city, while Betyár reflects our connection to Hungarian folk culture.

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To what extent are Hungarian dishes in focus for your restaurant? To what extent do you attempt to ‘reinterpret’ Hungarian cuisine?

We are not disciples of the very modern, fusion kitchen. Rather, we like to work with traditional ingredients. Naturally, since we are here in the city center, we have businessmen and tourists coming, and so we would like to present our food in an appealing way. And here, I mean presentation literally; the food that appears on the plate, while we would like to be as authentic as possible, we are not trying to conjure up the atmosphere of a mother’s kitchen somewhere in the countryside. But in terms of dishes and base ingredients, we prefer the Hungarian. The menu contains roughly 60% Hungarian dishes, and 40% foreign dishes.

Hungarian ingredients are often criticized for their low quality. How much do you look for local options in terms of ingredients? To what extent do you have relationships with Hungarian artisan food producers?

Among our appetizers, we have an artisan cheese platter; the cheese in that platter comes from a Hungarian artisan cheese monger. In addition, our restaurant’s flagship dish is smoked trout; the trout arrives fresh from Szilvásvárad [a village in northeastern Hungary] …he [the man who provides the fish] has expanded his business as well.

Are there any ingredients not from Hungary?

As I mentioned, the menu is 60% Hungarian food, 40% foreign food. Naturally, it is unavoidable then [to use ingredients not from Hungary], so that we can present an international selection to our Hungarian and foreign guests.

Are there any items or ingredients that, while acquirable, are not from Hungary? If so, where are they from?

In terms of items, we have many travel chests and treasure chests from all over. Some of them we bought here in Hungary at local flea markets; however, there were times when the family was traveling and we brought these sorts of items back from France and Madrid.

In terms of ingredients, while we buy from Hungarian suppliers, there are certainly foreign ingredients as well.

In addition, we have a foreign wine selection as well. While the emphasis in our wine-list is on Hungarian wines, there are a few foreign bottles on the list as well.

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One of your target clienteles is tourists visiting Hungary.

Yes.

Then, and this is not meant to be rude, but in what way does your restaurant differ from a stereotypical, checkered-tablecloth restaurant that caters to tourists looking for Hungarian food?

Well, I feel that if someone comes here, they will notice the differences. We have invested greatly, both in our furniture and in our staff training, and in addition the folk culture museum located on the lower level is something truly unique, there’s nothing like it anywhere in the city. And, really, even the table we are sitting at here, every piece is unique. That is how it was put together; in addition, both the chairs and the couches in our restaurant were specially crafted by a Mohács-based furniture maker. Honestly, we don’t use cheap things, either we restore old items or we create totally new ones.

Often, Hungarian cuisine is described as greasy and oily. Did this criticism influence the planning of your menu?

Absolutely. We did not want to create a ‘Csárda’ [restaurant serving stereotypical Hungarian dishes] atmosphere, with very grease foods that are over salted. That is not what we represent; rather, we take traditional Hungarian dishes and create them in a slightly more delicate, refined way.

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What was the atmosphere you were trying to achieve with the interior decoration of Urban Betyár?

We were trying to create a slightly noir atmosphere, while the travel chests and treasure chests point a little bit towards the Betyárs, as these were the types of things they would take as loot. These are the types of luggage that wealthy bourgeois would use when travelling, and betyárs would sometimes rob them as well.

All of the antique furniture and travel chests we have really adds to the restaurant’s atmosphere. In our booth seating, we have two tables that are on train tracks, that can be pushed together on the track.  We also have betyár pistols, old horseshoes, old writings…all of these together give the restaurant its atmosphere.

How was the opening reception?

We had our opening in the middle of November. About 150-160 people showed up. Everyone I spoke to said that this is a unique place, that they had never seen anything like it, and that they planned on coming back.

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How did the idea of having a museum come into being? What is a museum doing inside a restaurant?

We have been in the restaurant business for 9 years, at the Első Pesti Rétesház (First Strudel House of Pest), located just down the street from here. There our unique touch is having strudel-making demonstrations in our test kitchen, and [for Urban Betyár] we absolutely wanted to have something that would likewise add to the visitor’s experience, that a foreign visitor would truly feel that there were not just having a gastronomical experience, but a cultural one as well. There [at the Strudel House] the strudel demonstration is the unique touch, while here it is the museum that adds a special something to the restaurant experience.

In terms of target audience, is the museum intended to provide a rough overview of Hungarian folk culture for tourists, or does it focus more specifically on regional folk cultures?

We are more interested in providing an overview [of folk culture]. We placed items thematically rather than by region. For example, we have a woman’s room, where we placed items associated with work performed by women, such as spindles and other such items, while in the men’s room we concentrated more on music, here we have instruments. We also have a tiszta szoba (clean room), which represents a typical Hungarian clean room [The clean room was generally the nicest room in a traditional Hungarian peasant house, which was only used for special celebrations].

We have placed interactive displays throughout the museum, so that viewers can listen in either Hungarian or English to stories and histories related to the artifacts in front of them. There also larger texts on the walls, in both Hungarian and English, that try to provide an overview of peasant culture.

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What is the proportion of Hungarian versus foreign visitors?

In terms of the restaurant, we are very happy that we have a surprisingly large number of Hungarian guests. I don’t know by what miracle so many people have heard about us, but we truly are extremely pleased that they come here. And I think it is good for everyone, whether they have lived their whole life in Budapest or have moved here from the countryside, to get another look at or to get acquainted with the traditional peasant culture that we have on display downstairs.

In terms of foreigners, for the most part it is people just walking around, rather than people coming here specifically looking for our restaurant. That being said, we have had several groups over the last month, both those organized by travel agencies, and business functions as well.

In terms of proportion, I would say it is roughly 50/50 [Hungarian versus foreign visitors], which I think is very good.

What kind of long-term plans do you have for the museum? Do you plan on having any short-term exhibitions or collaborative programs with other museums or institutions?

I would say that we are open to anything, it is simply a question of discussing it. Really, if we like the given idea, we would very happily work together with other museums or individual exhibitors, we really are flexible in this regard.

Do you currently have official connections to any other museums besides the Déri Múzeum [located in Debrecen]?

We also have videos from the National Folk-Art Museum.

 

Urban Betyár’s address is the following: Budapest, Október 6. u. 16-18, 1051. Their website can be found here.

 

Reporting by Tom Szigeti

Photos by Péter Csákvári