Like everything else in the world England is too…
My first and (probably) last lunch at the Gay Hussar
It was end of May when several news sites wrote about the closure of the legendary Hungarian restaurant in London, the Gay Hussar. We have wanted to have lunch there for nearly 2 years, but we never managed, however the fact it was going to close gave us enough motivation to book a table, saying now or never. Being a Hungarian I felt it was sort of a duty to at least try this old, historic Hungarian restaurant in Soho.
We were looking forward to this experience a lot, not only because every time we go to London I take the opportunity to make photos for new topics presented on the blog, but we were genuinely interested in the Gay Hussar. Even the weather pleased us: it was 20C plus and the sun did come out before noon. As we booked the table for half twelve, we had plenty of time to walk around the city. We walked up to the Gay Hussar from the Victoria Embankment through the China Town and Soho. I have never been to these places before and although I have been to various districts of London, I have never seen such a vibrant, bohemian and pleasant atmosphere. Theater after theater, artisan food bars, restaurants of different nations. So this is the area where the famous Gay Hussar is, which got its name from an operetta by Imre Kalman, that was first played in London in 1909.
We got to the restaurant by quarter past twelve but its doors were shut. We hoped it would be open on time, they should do as we had a reservation at 12:30. We went back after a few minutes and we found a gentleman dressed in suit waiting for the restaurant to open. As we chatted with this gentleman, the doors of the Gay Hussar opened and we were welcome by a middle-aged gentleman wearing a grey suit and glasses. He was very polite and after having found us on the reservation sheet, he showed us our table which happened to be right next to the door. It was a tiny table for 2 but and we did not mind its location as we had a perfect view of the entire restaurant. Mind you, the entire restaurant was a smallish room which surprised me a bit. The layout reminded me of restaurant in Paris, meaning benches along the walls and chairs opposite.
First impressions by a Hungarian
The ambience of the restaurant was rather special and unique due to the many caricatures of famous people (I guess mainly politicians), the vintage lamps and half light. It made me see how this place was heaving with politicians and journalist back in time. The salt and pepper shakers on the table decorated with the famous Kalocsa pattern, the red chilies, the Hungarian flag and coat of arms, and the bottles above the mirror (Zwack Unicum, Fütyülős pálinka, Agárdi Cherry Liquor and William Pear) gave you a touch of Hungary without being too much. There were two gentlemen in the restaurant looking after guests and both had a distinctive Eastern-European accents. I tried to guess whether either, or perhaps both of them were Hungarians, but as they talked in English to each other it became obvious both of them had different nationalities. Not that it mattered too much, I was just interested. My guess would have been the main waiter because his pronunciation of some of the dishes of the menu such as “csirkepaprikás” or “dobos torta” were rather excellent, not to mention the word “fantasztikus”.
Having said menu…
I found the menu quite good, actually as it contained the most famous Hungarian dishes that a foreigner should try, or that you would find on the dinner table at weekends in Hungary. Although I got unused to Hungarian cooking in the past few years and to be honest I do not really miss them, I was pleased to have the opportunity to have something I have not had for a long time. I chose mushrooms fried in breadcrumbs with sauce Tartar for a starter, Bill ordered goose liver paté. For the main I ordered chicken in creamy paprika sauce with dumplings and Bill had crispy roast duck with purple cabbage and onion potato mash.
Although at the start, it was only us and the gentleman dressed in suit in the restaurant, we got the starters very quickly. The mushrooms were crispy and hot just as they should be and the sauce Tartar was home made which was really nice. Bill too, was satisfied with the goose liver paté. As we finished our starters, the place was filled up with guests, which was really good to see. Whether this was because it was Saturday lunch time, or because people wanted to try the restaurant before its final closure, I do not know. However, one thing was clearly visible: the Gay Hussar was not the choice of the younger generation. We heard the main waiter talking to one of the guests saying they still had some loyal regular guests.
Very good quality
I have to say (without being biased), I was impressed with the quality of the food and was looking forward to the mains, which I thought would be served with a delay because of the new guests, but I was wrong and it was served quickly again. It was delicious and hot. I mentioned to Bill a couple of times how good the food was and I would be happy to have this quality in Budapest. (There are probably some restaurants in Budapest with the same quality, maybe it is just me being unlucky.) There is another aspect as to why I am pleased the quality was as good as it was: during my career I have seen a few times how the work moral changed once an announcement was made about restructuring, outsourcing or closure. In the Gay Hussar it does not seem to be the case and it is nice to see they keep up the quality until the end – even if I do not have other experience to compare it with, but the quality we had, spoke for itself.
As we were eating, suddenly somebody shouted in the street and you could hear sounds of a drum and from one minute to another there was a demonstration in the street passing the doors of the Gay Hussar which – because of the nice weather – were open. The main waiter went to the door in a milisecond and shut the grill first then the doors. The guests were watching his action closely when he turned around and asked: “Do you want them in?”. We all laughed and I loved the fact he did care about the guests. He appeared to be of the old-school along with the other waiter: they were polite, attentive and funny. As it turned out he was Polish and the other waiter was Bulgarian. Apparently, some staff in the kitchen are from Hungary, as well as some of the waiters who had a day off.
Time to look back on history…
We only had to wait for ordering the desserts which was understandable, as by that time the rest of the guests had their mains served and ordered wine which kept the waiters busy. We did not mind because we could think about the history of the place. I tried to imagine how it was when the founder, Victor Sassie (who had Swiss and Welsh origin) learnt the industry in Hungary in the 30s by Gundel (famous Hungarian restaurateur), how it was when he opened the Gay Hussar in 1953, how it was when he went back to the socialist Budapest with 3 of his chefs for 6 months in 1966 for further training and most importantly, how it was when the Gay Hussar was heaving with politicians in the 70s and 80s. Apparently, journalists of Private Eye (satirical magazine) went to the Gay Hussar to listen to the gossip of the politicians in the restaurant. I could well understand that, as I could perfectly follow the conversation of the 2 couples sitting at the table in front of us whether I wanted or not. One of the ladies was of Hungarian descent, but lived all her life in the UK. She can speak Hungarian, however speaks it very rarely and is not fluent. She has gluten intolerance and could recommend a typically Hungarian dish to the other lady, however to my mind everything was typically Hungarian on the menu. All in all, I am not surprised journalists did not really have to sharpen their ears back in time…
I am not sure this is how Gundel would have served the pancake…
If anything I was sure about, it was my dessert. I wanted Gundel pancake. Gundel pancake which is still one of my favourite Hungarian dessert and which my Mum used to cook beautifully and I have not had it for years. This was the only dish that did not meet the expectations. It was nice, but it could have been better. I would not have served it on a piece of slate to start with as the walnut filling was dropping down by the edges plus the Gundel pancake has to be soaking in chocolate sauce. This one had a few drops on top which is not enough.
Lunch habits are changing
While Bill was having his tea, we were talking about the changed lunch habits of today’s generation. They often go to a franchise restaurant, or grab something form the fast-food restaurants, or in a better case from an artisan food shop which are really trendy these days. They could equally pop in to a restaurant like the Gay Hussar and have proper, hot meals (instead of burgers and chips for instance). Prices are not higher than the average franchise restaurants like Miller & Carter or Frankie & Benny’s.
Before we left, I looked around upstairs and I was amazed that even in the stairs they had caricatures that reminded me of the “Uborka” (Cucumber) which was a Hungarian puppet show caricature of politicians. I was surprised there was an extra event room on the first floor, but I did not dare going up to the second floor.
All in all we had a lovely time and meal at the Gay Hussar, which represents good quality Hungarian food. This is why it is such a shame it will be closed soon. Although we did hear the main waiter saying there were different funds being raised to save the restaurant, somehow I have the feeling this time it cannot be saved, although they would deserve it. I wish them all the best – sometimes changes are needed in spite of the old history and traditions. Maybe this is what the Gay Hussar needs… Time will tell. So that was our first and perhaps last lunch at the famous Hungarian restaurant in London.
PS: Before you started to make some thoughts about my food intake, let me say I could not finish my main and we walked 15 km in London afterwards. 🙂
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