BY BRYAN LAVERY
It saddened me to read of Marika Hayek’s passing earlier this week. Budapest Dining Room and Tavern, a local gem with yards of red velvet and charming unintended kitsch continued to evolve while its grand interior remained virtually unchanged. The décor with plush velvet valances and curtained alcoves, brocades, red and gold wallpaper and comfortable armchair seating evokes another era. The Roma “Gypsy-style” aesthetic is also the restaurant's brand. It became both an anomaly and anachronism.
The restaurant's two main rooms lead back from Dundas Street and are linked by an arched passageway across the middle, an ornate banquet hall at the far end, and the kitchen at the other end. There is almost always a musician—a piano player with a penchant for delivering uninvited political observations—playing the sentimental melodies traditionally adopted by Hungarian Romani musicians. He plays to the Budapest's patrons between brief monologues. He is part of the idiosyncratic charm.
Before I go any further, I want to begin by saying, I have known Marika Hayek for several decades. We were friendly restaurant neighbours for 10 years and she was only too happy to lend me a pound of butter on a busy Saturday night. She once invited me to go on vacation with her to the city of Budapest as her companion. "All expenses paid." And by the way, Hayek alternatively referred to me as Bruce, Byron and Bryan. I answered to all three. It was endearing.
The Budapest happens to be the first fine dining restaurant I visited when my family when we moved to London in 1970. My stepfather's father's family is Hungarian. My stepfather an excellent cook acquainted me us the cuisine. Chicken paprikash is the Hungarian National dish, its name derived from liberal use of paprika, a spice emblematic of the cuisine. Last year he brought some very fine paprika back from a trip to Hungary and we celebrated my birthday with family and good friends at Budapest Restaurant. This year for my birthday in October, my parents hosted a dinner party for my friends and my stepfather showed everyone how to prepare spätzle and chicken paprikash. Everyone taking turns. She was not far from our thoughts.
On top of that, I have been a long-time patron Budapest. My friend Kathy and I have been long-time devotees of the stuffed pork. Hungary, of course, is known for all matter of stuffed things, from cabbage rolls, dumplings, and perogies to blintzes, which were among Hayek’s time-honoured specialties. Her warm hospitality, coupled with menus filled with goulash, schnitzels and meaty paprikash, always made dining at Budapest, feel like you were stepping back in time.
Hayek delighted clients by serving Hungarian specialties in this traditional old-world tavern setting. The offering always consisted of a large selection of proper Hungarian dishes. House-made chicken and rabbit paprikash, beef stroganoff, wiener schnitzel, combination platters or prix-fixe Hungarian dinners — spätzle and the gnocchi were always delicious — and we would save room for the palacsinta, strudels and the walnut roll. The a la carte desserts were always much larger portions. The desserts that arrive as part of the prix-fixe arrangement are presented minus mounds of whipped cream.
A couple of years ago, Hungarian Consul-General Dr. Stefania Szabo celebrated Hayek’s landmark achievements as a successful business owner and pillar of the London community. Hayek was no stranger to such fanfare. She was admired and well-regarded for her hospitality, wit and risqué repartee.
Hayek arrived in Canada in March of 1957, then 25, she and her husband were part of a wave of immigration to Canada that occurred after the 1956 Hungarian revolution against communist rule. Between 1956 and 1958, an estimated 200,000 fled to the west to avoid Soviet reprisals, leaving their possessions behind. Around 38,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in Canada. About 6,000 of these refugees arrived in Ontario. Hayek was among them. All were admitted and accepted into Canadian society within a two-year period. The impact of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the mass of emigration of Hungarians who consequently arrived in Canada forms a watershed moment in Canadian History. Knowing this helps to put Hayek’s formidable achievements into perspective.
A trained cook in Budapest, Hayek was drawn to the hospitality business when she arrived in London. Initially, she was employed by Moskie Delicatessen on Dundas Street at Waterloo. Always thinking ahead, Hayek bought the building that housed Moskie even before she purchased the delicatessen from its owners. That transaction included the Giant ice cream shop next door. In 1968 she and her husband merged the two storefronts into a single premise. Ripping out the interior they refurbished the basement and main floor areas to build the present-day restaurant.
A formidable restaurateur with a keen aptitude for the business and exacting standards, the fledgling businesswomen embodied the height of Mittel European elegance and sophistication in the 1970s. There are plenty of framed glamour photos of the striking Hayek in her prime.
Until last year, Hayek’s routine has been to rise before dawn, eat breakfast, exercise and swim laps in her indoor pool. She arrived at the restaurant early in the morning to begin the workday. Hayek insisted “Everything on the menu be made in-house.” She oversaw and helped to prepare the large variety of Hungarian staples for which she has built her reputation.
Hayek often greeted her guests with a gracious "please come in, my lovely peoples" or "my lovely ladies and gentlemen" and had a penchant for referring to guests as "dah-ling" in her Gabor-like Hungarian accent. She was known to be a harmless flirt; it is part of her shtick. She liked to engage men and women in bawdy repartee and often referred to what she called “make the sexy-sexy." Hayek was always on hand tableside to pepper a conversation with a compliment or relationship advice for patrons. A classic Hayek phrase, often repeated was, "If a man has money in the pocket he has nothing in the pants. If he has something in the pants he has nothing in the pocket."
Last year at 85, requiring a cane for added mobility, Hayek celebrated a mind-numbing 60 years in business. A long list of local luminaries and a loyal clientele of long-time regulars, whom she mostly knew by name or a derivation of their name, still frequented the restaurant. The Budapest Restaurant continued to delight Hungarian food fans who preferred old-fashioned dishes. Even those food enthusiasts who were inclined to moan and dismiss the restaurant as an anachronism will wish they had taken a closer look at the Budapest Restaurant's unique charms before it became a thing of the past. Hayek will be missed. The Budapest will remain in business as she wished.