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Budapest Restaurants Struggling, Gastronomy of Lake Balaton Soaring

Dorottya Zalay 2021.06.25.

The pandemic has significantly reshaped the gastronomic map of Hungary. It seems that a fine culinary experience is no longer restricted to Budapest; on the contrary, people have been eager to leave the capital for the Hungarian countryside. As a result of this tendency, the region around Lake Balaton has been experiencing a gastronomic boom.

This, of course, did not happen in the blink of an eye; however, the pandemic has certainly accelerated the process. As válaszonline.hu suggests, the transformation of Lake Balaton into a model gastronomic region has been ongoing in the past five years. Since the start of the pandemic, the most prestigious, award-winning restaurants in the Hungarian capital have been struggling due to the lack of tourists and domestic consumers, wanting to get out of the city, prioritizing places in the countryside. It is safe to say that in the past year, Lake Balaton has become the ‘life-boat’ of Hungarian gastronomy.

It’s all about the opportunities provided by the region  

What makes dining at the Balaton unique is the fact that the gastronomic experience is not only about eating, but also about exploring the values of the region. Many restaurants around the lake use fresh, local or regional, artisan products, be it fish, beef, cheese, or wine. This is something that restaurants in the capital can only do to a limited extent.

Leaving his restaurant in the capital in 2017, Péter Felföldi chose the hill in Szigliget with its picturesque panorama as the location of his new bistro, Villa Kabala. Despite having struggled with making the restaurant an all-season destination, it seems that he has no regrets about his decision.

Everything in the countryside has a soul. It is cool to say in Pest that we work with farmers, but maybe that means a sausage. Here, we have our own ham, salami, cheese, our hens lay the eggs. The wine and champagne comes from my father’s vineyard in Badacsony, but we also get syrup, tonic, pálinka, and gin from him. We grow our microvegetables in our garden, and we are now making a bigger vegetable garden. We work with farmers who bring the tomatoes as soon as they are ripe, the salad when it has grown out of the ground- they grow radish, and pak-choi for us. What we cannot achieve in Budapest, here we can.”

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Leaving the capital for the countryside: a trend?

The story of Villa Kabala is not a unique case; many restaurant-owners in Budapest in recent years have moved to the countryside, and opened new businesses. Moreover, some restaurants in Budapest are trying to survive by creating pop-ups in other locations, especially around the Balaton.

Budapest is on the ground, and I don’t see it standing up soon. Everyone thinks that we have to cast our nets on Lake Balaton,”

said Lajos Bíró, the owner of ‘Buja disznó’ on the market in Fény Street, in Buda. He also secured himself by the Hungarian sea, becoming a consultant for ‘Aranypatkó’ restaurant in Szigliget.

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Szigliget to become a gastronomic heaven

The well-known Hungarian businessman and restaurant-owner, Károly Gerendai, is also working on a new project in Szigliget. As a collaboration between the street-food themed pop-up restaurant of Jenő Rácz’s Michelin-starred Costes in Budapest, ‘Nudli tésztabár’ (‘Nudli pasta bar’), and ‘Digó nápolyi pizza’ (‘Digó Neapolitan Pizza’), a food court will be created in Szigliget. The former chef of Costes, Eszter Palágyi, is also opening her new restaurant in the area. The food court called ‘Várudvar’ will open this weekend. If successful, it will return next summer, but Gerendai also talked about the potential of turning it into an all-season project.

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Despite the continuous easing of travel restrictions, the Balaton will most likely be a popular destination this summer as well. Gerendai highlighted that Szigliget is a unique spot in the region in terms of its cultural significance, hoping that this new food court will make it even more extraordinary.

Balaton vs. Budapest: who will win?

The question remains: will the gastronomy of the Balaton mean a challenge for Budapest? Especially after the pandemic, people certainly have tended to leave for the Balaton or other places in the countryside, seeking a unique restaurant experience with regional and artisan products, something that they simply cannot get in the capital.

Gerendai, on the other hand, believes that the restaurants around the Balaton are not likely to threaten the gastronomy of the capital, as they do not aim to create places for fine dining. But he admitted that at the moment, opening pop-ups and restaurants at the Balaton can help restaurant-owners in the capital survive the challenges caused by the pandemic. In the end, it appears that the Balaton and Budapest offer different, but equally unique gastronomic experiences, and as the impacts of the pandemic fade and foreign tourists return to the capital, restaurants in Budapest will most likely regain their former glory.

In the featured photo illustration: László Jahni, the chef of ‘Kistücsök’ restaurant in Balatonszemes. Photo: Tamás Vasvári/MTI