Underground above the Town

 

Conjuring up the recent past and renting run-down apartment buildings for fashionable new bars has turned out to be the strongest catering trade investment of modern Budapest.

“What was the name of that amazing pub in the center, in the old courtyard with the run-down car and the hot girls?” Cinematographer Julian Court found that the pub had stuck in his mind, and couldn’t wait to text his friend José A. Melgarez for more information. Court(41),from London but currently residing in South Africa shooting a large-scale TV drama, had met up with Melgarez (32) in Budapest. Melgarez, an ex-pat with a sophisticated knowledge of Budapest’s retro bars, was soon able to provide the answer.  
 
It’s called Szimpla Kert. ‘Szimpla’ means ‘single’ (as in ‘single shot’). ‘Kert’ can be used to talk about a garden or, in this case, a courtyard. Szimpla Kert has successfully moved into an abandoned secessionist building in downtown Budapest and these days is very far from being a depressed ruin. Visitors cannot enter before dusk. Few know how it must look in daylight.
 
There are many such bars José would happily guide you to in Budapest’s 7th district. Less prosaically named ‘Elisabeth Town’ after the Hapsburgian princess (not the Empress), locals also know the district as ‘Csikágó’ (yes, Chicago). This comes from the early 20th century when buildings grew like mushrooms at the same time as the Illinois metropolis. The district could be named the Small Apple too, suitable for de Niro scenes in Godfather II perhaps.
 
The investment trend of renting derelict open-air courtyards in old apartment buildings and turning them into fashionable bars peaked in 2002. However, only the very best have survived. Invisible from the street, you can enter them only through bulky gates (or thanks to José). They belong to a genre unique to Budapest –Berlin too, since the Hungarian owner of Szimpla Kert has opened a version there, also named Szimpla, with authentic Budapest furniture.
 
Inside the ruin pubs, the setting is – how shall one put it? - historical. They feature dilapidated walls with a crumbling art nouveau, classical or deco design, wrought-iron balconies, or sometimes bare Kafkaesque rooms. But Szimpla Kert – like all such ‘ruin pubs’ - is teeming with an energetic and colorful Budapester (Hungarian and ex-pat) crowd. Revelers of all kinds wander from retro bar to another every night. They are yuppies, bobos (bohemian bourgeois), dinks (double income no kids) and José A-type socialites (José B-type guests stick to one bar for a whole season). In the center of Szimpla Kert a colorful Trabantholds pride of place, the gas guzzler of ex-Soviet East Germany, which for some supernatural reason drives couples to engage in long kissing sessions inside.
 
The non open-air Dupla (double shot) is a retro bar, as is Szóda (Soda). The latter features 1960s soda-bottles, vintage radios, sheshbesh board and other retro paraphernalia. It throws in a little manga to the mix as well, with cartoons on the ceiling.

Back on the street corner, José points to the black-and-red Sark (Corner), and Ellátó (Supplier). The latter is displaying what Budapest can show the world: a two-floor pub with contemporary art on its walls. The girls are beautiful. The boys are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful.

Budapest’s retro bars are all gloomy, mystic, turbulent and sexy. Ex-pats love them. Descending into the society of the gardens in Csikágó is only an initiation before ascending to the Corvin Roof.
 
“Underground above the town,” says the Corvin Roof’s homepage, promising both a mystic secret-society atmosphere and high-class socialites.
 
Do not take the stairs. Take the elevator. You have to bang the door on the ground floor so the bellboy can hear you on the top. He wears either a bow tie or a tuxedo, maybe both, but they always clash with his shorts. As you are elevated to the upper floors, he also offers drinks from a cooling box that you can consume sitting on a bench, looking at Le Chat Noir painted on the wall. You should aim for a Lift only before 9 p.m. After 9, you will surely have to stand in the crowded industrial elevator.
 
There are a few spots on the Roof from where you can even see the Citadella, and the statue of liberty, the highest point in Budapest. Otherwise, the skyline is full of rooftops, domes, towers and neon ads. There is a famous one North by North West: New York Coffee House. Honestly, it is a palace with skyscraping towers above and a coffee bar at the bottom, once      equaling Montmartre. Today Boscolo runs the place, and its elegantly-lit new-classical tower contrasts the industrial cranes on the neighboring construction site.
 
Dress code: smart casual for gents; whatever, that is intellectually sexy for ladies. There is a multinational team arriving from time-to-time, their English speech molds into an incomprehensible energetic group talk with technical expressions as “transaction”, “equity’ and “worst coffee I’ve ever had in my life” popping out. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is located in the neighborhood, just next to Szóda. Corvin helps them to lose their ties. Otherwise you find the elite of bobos, dinks, and professionals with AB Esomar status.
 
The Munch (Darryl Jones, bass guitarist) and Lisa Fisher (singer) from Rolling Stones made the 1,000 member audience to crowd the club-sized hall of Corvin Roof. They load stadiums. On Corvin only the chosen ones heard them.
 
“It is a bit like Vegas” – says José. “You should not see it in daylight. It is only concrete and noise. But in the evening: full of life.” José runs a full round of dandy-philosophy. His thoughts and experiences flood the audience. “Budapest differs from European towns to its benefit, thanks to the locals. They stay during the summer and do not let tourist and hyenas hunting for tourist to take over their town.”
 
If you desire, you can stay till dawn.

 

 

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