Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Indomitable Restaurateur Marika Hayek Celebrates 60+ Years at The Budapest


Budapest Dining Room and Tavern is a local gem with yards of red velvet and charming unintended kitsch. Over the years the Budapest has continued to evolve while its grand interior remains virtually unchanged. The décor with plush velvet valances and curtained alcoves, brocades, red and gold wallpaper, comfortable arm chair seating evokes another other era. The Roma “Gypsy-style” aesthetic is also the restaurant's brand. It has become both an anomaly and anachronism.

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 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 owner Marika Hayek for several decades. We were friendly restaurant neighbour's for a decade 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 refers to me as Bruce, Byron and Bryan. I answer to all three. It has become an endearing dog and pony show.

The Budapest happens to be the first fine dining restaurant I visited when my family and I moved to London in 1970. My stepfather's father's family is Hungarian. My stepfather an excellent cook has intimately acquainted me with 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 Budapest. I treat it like gold.

On top of that, I have been a long-time patron. My friend Kathy and I are 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 are among  Hayek's specialties. Her warm hospitality, coupled with menus filled with goulash, schnitzels and meaty paprikash, can make dining at Budapest feel like stepping back in time.

Hayek has been delighting clients by serving Hungarian specialities in this traditional old-world tavern setting for over 60 years. The offering consists of a large selection of proper dishes. House-made chicken and rabbit paprikash, beef stroganoff, wiener schnitzel, combination platters or prix-fixe Hungarian dinners — spätzle and the gnocchi are delicious — save room for the palacsinta, strudels and the walnut roll. The a la carte desserts are 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 is no stranger to such fanfare. She is 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 1970's. There are plenty of framed glamour photos of the striking Hayek in her prime.  

Until recently, Hayek’s routine has been to rise before dawn, have breakfast, exercise, and until recently, swim laps in her indoor pool. She arrives at the restaurant early in the morning to begin the workday. Hayek insists, “Everything on the menu is made in-house.” She oversees and helps to prepare the large variety of Hungarian staples for which she has built her reputation.

Hayek greets her guests with a gracious "please come in, my lovely peoples" or "my lovely ladies and gentlemen" and has penchant for referring to guests as "dah-ling" in her Gabor-like Hungarian accent. She is known to be a harmless flirt, it is part of the schtick. She likes to engage men in bawdy repartee and often refers to what she calls as “make the sexy-sexy." Hayek is on hand to pepper a conversation with a compliment or relationship advice for women patrons. A classic Hyak phrase that is often repeated: "If a man has money in the pockets he has nothing in the pants. If he has something in the pants he has nothing in the pockets".

Now 85, requiring a cane for added mobility, Hayek is celebrating a mind-numbing 60 years in business. A long list of local luminaries and a loyal clientele of long-time regulars, whom she mostly knows by name or a derivation of their name, still frequent the restaurant. The Budapest attracts bus tours and plenty of patrons from the nearby hotels.

The Budapest Restaurant will delight Hungarian food fans who prefer the old-fashioned dishes. Even those food enthusiasts who are inclined to moan and dismiss the restaurant as an anachronism, might want to take a closer look at the Budapest Restaurant's unique charms before it becomes a thing of the past.

Budapest Dining Room & Tavern
348 Dundas Street.

(519) 439-3431

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