Whenever you treat yourself or toast a celebration, it’s all fun and games until the bill is placed on your table. You take the gulp, a big deep breath and then close your eyes as you slide your trusty 16 digit plastic card across the table. But when it’s worth it, it’s worth it. In Budapest, none of the above is true, except the fact that it’s always worth it. With fine dining meals under $10 per person, this is one of the best cities in Europe to explore exquisite Michelin Starred tastes without the bite.
Praising a European city for fork licking fine dining is practically a redundant thought. Every city in Europe excels in fine dining, and places like San Sebastian offer a greater concentration of Michelin stars than any other region on the map. And then, of course, there’s Paris, Madrid, London, Brussels, Milan, Nice, Rome, Vienna and yeah – you get the point.
But there’s one fundamental difference between fine dining in these major capitols and the bites found in Budapest: it’s cheap here, like legitimately cheap. How cheap? Like under $10 for lunch at a spot with a Michelin star, or at least a Bib Gourmand, including a drink – an alcoholic one.
As I sat down at Stand 25, inside a lovely market in Zone 1, I had low expectations, high hopes and a major appetite. Within minutes, an eggplant tartare was placed in front of me, at a whopping cost of 1000 Hungarian Forint (HUF). For record keeping purposes, that’s about $3.4, or £2.8. I then went for the restaurant special, a plate of layered potatoes with sausages and mixed pickles. As odd as it may sound, it was lick the plate good. For this lunchtime main course, I was hit with another wallet beating price of 1200 HUF. Again, that’s just over $4 USD, and under £3.50.
I’m on vacation, so yeah, I had a glass of Rosé with lunch. At a price of 700 HUF per glass, it brought my two course lunchtime fine dining meal total to a whopping $10, or £8 for those clinging onto the Great British Pound.
The unassuming restaurant, which hovers between a single Michelin Star and a Bib Gourmand award is just one of many in the city ushering in a new era of fine dining in a country known as a place that offers anything but. When people say Budapest, or Hungary at large, they think heavy plates of mush with a focus on slow cooked meats in heavy sauces, with plenty of starch to go alongside.
But the humble culinary beginnings from the communist era, where meals were made just to sustain workers is over, and after decades of being laughed out of fine dining conversations, a younger generation of chefs is stewarding the country towards an incredible culinary future. By most accounts, the phenomenon started in the last seven years as tourism numbers began to grow and by all accounts it’s taking off like a rocket ship.
Make no mistake, this is the time to visit, the time before bib gourmands turn into Michelin stars, and before blogs ruin the secret. Wait…
These chefs are championing local ingredients and putting lighter, brighter spins on classic cuisine. Think fresh, mineral driven wines from Lake Balaton, fresh produce from abundant hills and unique meat and game from venison to river trout, water buffalo and bountiful duck. They’re famous for it.
Sure, it’s no secret that lunch can be the best time for fine dining steals, but it’s not as if the city hits you over the head at dinner either. At stunning spots such as Textura, or Borkonya, a bonafide main course will run between $10-15, or $20 for the extra special stuff. It’s hard to put into perspective just how special the price to quality ratio is here. Other spots worth a gander? Stand25, St. Andrea, Mak and Bock Bistro will all do you proud.
Even Onyx, the lone two Michelin starred place in the city, offers dinner degustation menus around $100 per person during dinner service, and for six courses of mind blowing food that’s expensive no doubt, but also an outrageous value for two star dining, especially in Europe.
It’s not to say this is as cheap as a kebab shop, but then again this isn’t kebab food, and compared to tasting menus fetching more than $500 per person across Western Europe, you can’t help but feel as if you’re robbing the place.
If food is half the holiday and fine dining is the goal, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss out on this buzzing European city on the rise. With this kind of buzz and this much Michelin attention, I’d think these prices won’t last forever, nor will the ability to walk in! Köszönöm, Budapest.