Monday, 5 November 2007
The Death of the Presszó
Digital photos ©LucyMallows2007
The Death of the Presszó
By Lucy Mallows ©1997
The presszó or eszpresszó occupies a mysterious limbo link in the types of hostelries in Budapest.
It is a step up from the rough and ready borozó (wine bar, but nothing like a brasserie, this is a dingy, mouldy cellar where cheap rot gut wine is ladled from a metal drum for around 30 forints a shot) or sörözô (beer hall), haunts of men drinking on their own, alcoholics talking to themselves, where women on their own are considered of easy virtue or desperate for a drink.
The eszpresszó hovers between the borozó/sörözô and the more upmarket cukrászda - coffee house, where solitary readers sip a cappuccino; a group of tourists pore over their guide books and soak up the traditional atmosphere. or friends gather for a Sunday afternoon chat.
The eszpresszó is more the local of the working class, ladies in groups eating cakes, gangs of workmen playing dominoes and eating somlói galuska, chocolate and cream pudding with their beer and young teenagers enjoying a moderately priced cappuccino.
However the eszpresszó is an endangered species.
The Fény (Light) presszó on Margit körút has been gutted by workmen and is now a pawn brokers, trading in jewellery.
It used to have one of the first juke boxes in Buda.
One by one, they gradually close as the rent soars and the fast food chains buy up all the best-situated premises. The style of the presszó is socialist brown.
Outside, there is almost always a neon sign offering such unique - and socially inspiring - names as Terv -the (five year) Plan, Béke –Peace, Haladás –Progress and even the incongruous but somehow strangely comforting Májas -Liver Sausage.
Inside a typical presszó, a washable stone floor is usually adorned with a crazy paving style mosaic or beige linoleum, net curtains, little yellow, brown and green tiling on the walls, fake red leather seats or little gnome stools. The waitresses still wear the long, white lace up boots with cut away heels and toes.
These look strange but give much support during the long hours of standing.
The standing helps contribute to the attitude which is almost always one of disdain or lethargic surliness.
To be a proper old-style presszo, it must have the original neon squirly writing outside, with a few of the letters hanging off, or missing entirely.
Check out the Alkotás (Creation) or the Pingvin söröző on Bocskai út in the eleventh district. If the cukrászda is the coffee house, the eszpresszó is more the coffee bar.
The eszpresszó is more homely, friendly, less imposing than the cukrászda whose tradition of writers, poets and now tourists frightens off the locals. Budapest was once the city of eszpresszó bars. In 1937, the Quick in Vigadó utca was the first coffee bar to open; its premises was planned and created by interior and industrial designers. The building is an office now. From the 1930’s one eszpresszó opened after another and by 1950 many new ones joined the already established café's: The Mocca, American, Parisien, Joker, Intim and the Darling. After 1956, the social realist architecture began to wane and a younger, fresher generation of enthusiastic interior decorators was given a free hand in the planning of public catering.
Shops reduced to rubble during the uprising were rebuilt in the modern style.
There was a craze for neon, both inside and out.
The trend to use English names gradually died out, in neon lights above the new revolutionary eszpresszós displayed radical slogans - Plan, Prosperity and Spartacus.
The post war eszpresszós still exist, the 1950s style is harder to find.
The red and green neon lights are now fading, some switched off forever, the Traubi (grape) and Márka (cherry) soft drinks are hard to find, the Bambi pop has disappeared, the wheels of progress grind on.
At the Kisposta eszpresszó by Moszkva tér, Friday night is party night, an old guy plays the Casio organ, with built-in drum machine and customers dance when the mood takes them.
The waitress continually arranges the heavy greeny-grey swivel chairs and tells off customers who push them out of line.
The Kisposta is full of elderly couples enjoying the old time songs, singing along, looking wistful and drinking brandy. Romanian and Russian young men, workers from Moszkva tér spend their daily wage on beer.
I say to my companion, ‘I wish a handsome Russian man would ask me to dance,’ and two seconds later one does.
Alexei dances with almost everyone in the bar, even waltzing with a old lady from the cake-eating table.
Alas the Kisposta is now a savings bank, gone the way of so many wonderful presszós, disappearing faster than a Siberian tiger. The very popular Bambi Eszpresszó on Frankel Leó utca’s semi-pedestrian streets serves ‘warm sandwiches’, omelettes, cakes and coffee.
Also on offer is ‘Soviet’ champagne for only 480 forints a bottle and.
Kadarka red wine, a bargain at 27 forints a deciliter. The Bambi has one of the few interiors dating back to the sixties, that remain untouched, a fairy tale ceramic city adorns the walls.
Old men play dominoes on a Sunday afternoon, sitting on red leatherette seats.
The mosaic floor has geometric box shapes in yellow, green and brown. The Sziget cukrászda is a presszó and cukrászda in one.
It has a varying prices scheme for those who stand at the tables in the presszó part, marked pointedly ‘II osztály’ -second class or move through the heavy plum-colored velvet curtains into the more chi-chi inner sanctum.
At the Sziget you can taste one of the best chestnut purees in town - little brown worms of nutty sweetness covered in whipped cream. The waitresses keep up the aloof grumpiness, required for the job.
The Sziget is now the Europa Coffee House, an anal Austrian style upmarket cafe, with waitresses in push up bras and peasant outfits, a la Mozart (formerly the wonderful Palma on the Nagy Körút). Nádor utca, the street of philanthropists and learning boasts two presszós.
The Terv Eszpresszó or (five year) Plan has been smartened up recently with white paint and shiny lamps, it almost has pretensions to being a cukrászda, were it not for the clientele, working men in pairs, drinking beer and spirits in the morning, and, of course, the linoleum is still beige and dog-eared. The Tulipán, belonging to the group of fifth district flower-christened presszós, the Ibolya (Violet) student favorite on Ferenciek tere and the Muskátli (Geranium) tourist trap on Váci utca.
The outside of the Tulipán is misleading, the white plastic chairs and navy umbrellas give a Mediterranean terrace café feel, but move inside and the back room has a stark, naked beauty.
The gnome high stools surround little mushroom tables and the walls have turned beige from Sopianae cigarette smoke. Outside the Mignon eszpresszó, a neon sign at night reveals a girl with a sixties bob about to nibble on a tasty morsel, a mini cabbage roll or one of those little pink cakes bought by the deka.
The eszpresszó occupies a space on that strange incongruous row of one story shops on Károly körút, that have surprisingly still survived the bulldozer of town-planning progress.
On a personal note, the Mignon was the first establishment I entered in Hungary in 1984, coming off the metro from Keleti palyaudvar to Deák tér.
A man sat in the corner playing a Casio organ and the atmosphere was like a wedding party in Transylvania. Old bácsis danced with little girls, nénis danced together, everyone was off their heads on cheap wine and lethal pálinka. The air was almost impenetrable with the thick white fog of Munkás (worker) cigarettes.
It was heaven.
The Mignon is still very brown and gloomy even during the day. Gloom is important so that artists can compose and drinkers can drink in peace.
The only light comes from a fruit machine which flashes garishly where once the band played. The Majakovskij on Király utca has a huge Eszpresszó sign and placards in the windows offering coffee, cakes, soft drinks and ice cream. Enter the bar and you step back in time, two very brown rooms are decorated by pictures of alpine scenes and a five-pronged brown wood fan hangs immobile from the smoke-stained ceiling.
Bright red Christmas lights line the top of the bar and the radio plays ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale.’
Király utca was also called Majakovskij utca after the Soviet Constructivist poet until 1990, and the presszó attracted those of an artistic inclination.
The dour waiter in a black cardigan could be one of the original poets. The Mester eszpresszó on Mester utca, the street of craftsmen and artisans, is announced by wonderful tableau signs.
This is a real eszpresszó with wood paneling and old linoleum.
Groups of men sit, drinking fröccs in the afternoon and bustling waitresses take no nonsense from behind the huge sixties counter. The bar is crowded with loud, bright fruit machines and a gigantic beige ceramic stove takes up half the floor. Whereas the borozó is often the haunt of the solitary drinker, the presszó is much more communal and sociable. The Tik Tak on Böszörményi út has a sweet neon cuckoo clock above the doorway.
Refined, silver-haired gentlefolk of the vicinity use to drop in for coffee an cognac.
A piano once stood on a platform at the back and lamps with parchment shades gave an atmosphere of old Hungarian films. Böszörményi út is almost a museum street itself with many of the old neon signs still remaining. Nearby, the Májas - Liver sausage calls itself a vendéglô now and offers food, but the peppermint green exterior, neon Májas sign and crazy paving stone floor are definitely ‘Espresszó-land’.
There are a few too many coke signs in the window but the whole presszó is redeemed by the wonderful walls inside.
The knobbly walls are like the inside of a sixties recording studio and help the conversation on horse-betting, the lottó and the fortunes or misfortunes of Fradi, to reverberate around the room, increasing in volume and urgency. After a few pálinkas, you half-close your eyes, drift off and move back in time.
You can imagine Mária Gardonyi (from the heavenly Palma -now revamped as the Mozart) is playing the piano and couples are dancing cheek to cheek while others hum along to the favorites tunes, documenting a more gentle graceful time.
In his homage to the coffee-house, Ferenc Bodor wrote, ‘In the present depopulated, impoverished hamburgerized realm of catering, hostile to customers, those more advanced in years recall the smoke-filled cafés with their yellowed silk lampshades and tinkling pianos with wistful nostalgia.
Coffee houses and cafés have had their day, in present-day Budapest at least.’
Where to sip presszó coffee and pear pálinka, once....long ago.....in presszó land
UPDATE - this article dates from the late 1990s. Many have now disappeared, gone forever.
Please let me know if you have any news on some of these national treasures, listed below:
1. Kisposta - XII. Krisztina krt 2/4 GONE, NOW SAVINGS BANK, sob
2. Bambi - II. Frankel Leó út 2/4
3. Sziget - V. Szent István krt 7 GONE, NOW the vile 'theme-café' EUROPA CUKRÁSZDA, waitresses in costume
4. Terv - V. Nádor utca 19
5. Tulipán - V. Nádor utca 32
6. Mignon - V. Károly krt 28 GONE – the entire parade has been demolished, a gem is lost forever
7. Majakovskij - VII. Király utca 103 NOW THE INNOCUOUS ‘MAYA’
8. Mester - IX. Mester utca 45, still pretty rough at last glance
9. Tik-Tak - XII. Böszörményi út 17/c, with the wonderful clock on the facade
10. Májas - XII. Tartsay Vilmos utca 21 GONE, NOW ‘ARCADE BISTRO’
11. Naná - V. Királyi Pál utca, very dusty and gloomy but with an 'Another Way' [Egymásra nézve] ambience.
12. Híd cukrászda - IX. Ferenc krt by Mester utca...on the way out
13. No 1. - V. Sas utca
14. Ibolya - V. Ferenciek tere
15. Akadémia - üllõi út opposite med school
16. Gourmand – now the Gourmand Sports Bar (flagging fast)
17. Alkotás – XII Alkotás út - DERELICT
18. Szonáta - XI Bartok Béla út is now Wang’s Chinese Food. It used to be the place where the Magyar Narancs editors gathered to drink beer and play on the solitary pinball machine.
19. Grinzingi borozó – Irányi út, foofed up a bit lately, and not the same dowdy, dusty and very smoky atmosphere…prices went up, students and alcies moved out
20. Angelika - Batthyány tér - renovated, original furnishings dumped, gone are the ladies in hats eating cake, in come techno teenies and horrible loud music. Atmosphere annihilated.