- 27 Sep 2023 3:15 PM
Well… This is Hungary, and even though Budapest, in particular, has embraced certain customs from the West – counter service, for example – other traditions linger, ones that make seem strange to the uninitiated.
So, here are a few tips to help you blend in and get the most out of Budapest’s justifiably legendary bar life.
1. The man walks in first
For you few remaining gentlemen out there, cast aside those noble instincts when accompanying a lady towards a bar door – you should walk in first. No ‘After you!’ here, and don’t even think about that hand gesture to indicate right of way to your partner. Stroll right in, bold as brass, keeping the door open for your companion behind you.
This tradition dates back to when smoky taverns were dens of iniquity and any bar could be a késdobáló – a place where knives come out at the slightest provocation. Those halcyon days of betyárs and highwaymen are long gone, and now barcrawling in Budapest is safer than many European cities of its size. Still, lest a stray highwayman be careless with his cutlery, the man walks in first.
2. Hungarians don’t do bar counters
This vast cultural difference between Hungarian and Anglo-Saxon bar cultures is best appreciated when you’re with a group of Magyars and you’ve all just walked into a lively, happening, hellzapoppin’ bar. Hooray!
You’re just looking forward to unbridled revelry, music, banter and vibe, when the Hungarians scan the place and find no table that’s entirely and absolutely free. Acres of space at the bar counter, mind... ‘Ah, sajnos. We’ll have to go somewhere else entirely’.
‘But… but… but…,’ you begin to protest, knowing full well that the best bar buzz is often around the counter anyway. Nope. No table, no fun. Like it, lump it or stick to barcrawling in Budapest with no Hungarians in tow.
3. Order, order
In a related topic, it wasn’t that long ago that all bars in Budapest were table-service only. You waited, sometimes for eons, but until any waitstaff deigned to appear, you remained thirsty. The rise of ruin bars and general trends sweeping in from the West have seen more and more places only serving drinks from the counter.
In fact, firms sell signs and stickers saying Kiszolgálás a pultnál, (‘Counter service’), for bar owners to purchase and then place them at every table. As soon as you see one, stride right up to the counter and order your drink.
4. Tips about tipping in Hungary
Another, perhaps less welcome, introduction from abroad is the tip being automatically added to your bill. Obviously more prevalent in restaurants, it’s begun to creep into bar culture, too, meaning you might have to ask, ‘Benne van a szervizdíj?’ (‘Is a tip included?’), just to check.
With table service or, indeed, counter service, the usual custom was to round up the amount by about 10%, and say the figure you’re paying. So, if a couple of drinks were 1,800 forints, you would say, ‘2,000!’ and hand over the money including the tip.
Further complicating matters is the now ubiquitous payment by card – your barperson will ask ‘Kártya vagy készpénz?’, ‘Card or cash?’. Bleeping in, particularly if your card was issued by a foreign bank, may involve the serious mind gymnastics of agreeing a tip with one button, fixing the amount with another, then pressing another button to ask the system to convert into forints or pay the amount in your home currency – and, hey, you’re in a bar, the very last thing you want is responsibility.
As a general rule, add 10% unless service is included, and if you were particularly impressed by the staff, add a little on top.
5. Pints, halves and clinking
A pint, or half-litre, of beer, is a korsó (‘kor-sho’), a half is a pohár (‘poh-haar’), or glass. However… some bars serve 0.4 litres and still call it a korsó – and more generous establishments serve 0.3 litres and call it a pohár.
The glass you receive will often be logo’d, as every bar has a tie-in with a brewery. Staff may also be instructed to serve certain beers in a glass mug, which automatically makes anyone holding it look at least 20 years older. Insist on a proper glass if you’re concerned.
One thing you might have heard is that Hungary has struck the unwritten rule about not clinking beer glasses from the tacit statute book. This wonderfully arcane custom harks back to the grim day in 1849 when the Austrians executed 13 revolutionary Hungarian generals and celebrated afterwards. Thenceforth, no Magyar would ever clink their beer glass.
Somebody then pointed out that the tradition was only meant to last 150 years, ie until 1999, after which time, Hungarians may clink away merrily with the best of ‘em. However, this is probably utter nonsense and why have a tradition anyway, if you’re not going to stick to it? Raise your glass, meet your drinking companion’s eye, and leave the clinking to the Austrians.
6. Measure for measure
Spirits (röviditalok, ‘short drinks’) are usually sold as a 4cl measure, the classic Hungarian favourites being Unicum and pálinka. The former is a dark and forbidding bitter liqueur, a Magyar cousin of Jägermeister, with a fascinating heritage and, back in the day, inventive advertising you’ll see everywhere. The latter is a clear fruit brandy not a million miles from grappa, whose recent gentrification has seen high-quality labels being produced. Popular varieties include plum (szilva), pear (körte) and peach (barack).
Wine (bor), red (vörös), white (fehér) or rosé (rozé), is sold by the decilitre, the common measure being 2dl although you’ll probably be asked how much you’d prefer. There is also all manner of combinations of (generally) white wine and soda, whose generic name is fröccs or spritzer.
7. Sweet relief
It wasn’t that long ago that Hungarian toilets were guarded by a WC-s néni, an older lady in a housecoat whose palm you had to cross with silver in order to use the facilities. While these ladies of legend are no longer with us, in truth many bar toilets could do with a supervisor, someone to keep the place clean, and equipped with soap and other essentials.
The other problem is that large premises, ruin bars in particular, tend to have very limited toilet space, meaning you’ll be queuing for what will seem like several millennia before you reach the sacred spot.
Here, tactics come into the equation, perhaps nipping in to the small room before you go up to order the next round of drinks, or putting your bladder though an Olympian training regime.
Oh, and beware toilets with automatic lighting when you enter – they never work properly and always cut out at the vital moment. A flashlight or your mobile is always handy in such circumstances.
Words by Peterjon Cresswell for Xpatloop.com
Peterjon has been researching the byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website liberoguide.com