These days Budapest is known for its ruin pubs, but there was a time when the city’s lively cafés were the main circuit for those who liked to see and be seen. And there was no more prominent spot on any bohemian’s map than the New York Café. The building, in a commanding location on the Grand Boulevard in District VII, was commissioned by the New York Life Insurance Company, and opened in 1894. The eclectic style, relying on Italian Renaissance and Baroque, reflected the international ownership and clientele.
According to legend, writer Ferenc Molnár, an early regular, took the key to New York’s front door and threw it into the Danube, so the café would be forced to stay open all night. The place was, it is fair to say, writer-friendly. The head waiter supplied reams of paper – known as ‘dog’s tongues’ – to those writers who were regulars at the café. Encyclopedias and reference books were kept on hand should they be needed by the bookish clientele. Newspapers had their own ‘home tables’ for their journalists and editors, like a satellite office, and the editors and writers from Hungary’s most famous literary review, Nyugat, regularly took their coffee at New York (though later they would migrate to Central Café in inner Pest). Among the famous writers who labored at New York were the aforementioned Ferenc Molnár (whose true fame was only known after he emigrated to America), Gyula Krúdy (the Proust of Budapest), and Frigyes Karinthy. Of course the dazzling interior was bound to attract visual artists as well: during its golden age Hungarian Impressionists and Naturalists lounged there, as did the budding film-making community, including Casablanca director Michael Curtiz.
After World War I the space that housed the New York Café changed hands several times. The cafe was closed and reopened as a restaurant, burlesque, travel agency, and even a sporting goods store. After a few more miss-starts, in 2001, the Italian Boscolo Group bought the building and painstakingly restored the café over the course of several years. These days, you are more likely to see tourists, bankers, or film stars at New York Cafe than writers or artists, and if you ask for a ‘dog’s tongue’ the waiter will probably think it is some new sort of energy drink. But history speaks from the statuary; the café is a veritable cultural history of Budapest.
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