Jégbüfé: Reflections on an authentically retro Budapest confectionery

Amidst all the kitsch, the tacky souvenir shops, the tourist traps and the overpriced “traditional Hungarian” restaurants along Váci utca, Budapest’s main pedestrian mall, there’s a little haunt called the Jégbüfé (Ice buffet), located just a block away, right near the foot of Elisabeth Bridge. When you go to the Jégbüfé, think more communist era retro, rather than old world charm. Opened in 1952 and the brainchild of Sándor Flaschner, the confectionery got its name from the fact that it sold ice cream, cold parfaits, chilled slices of cake and favourites like chestnut puré, also served cold. Until recently, you would have to pay for your pastries in advance at a cash register, and then stand in line and give your receipt to the nonchalant lady behind one of the dessert counters, who would serve you. A two step process. And the first step had the potential to strike fear and Catholic guilt in almost any heart: after all, you had to innumerate, one-by-one, all the gluttonous sweets that you wanted to buy, as a surly middle-aged woman, sometimes wearing what appeared to be a white lab coat, stared at you and punched each item in to the register, only to hand you a little receipt.

They seem to have streamlined this a bit, although the weird little ritual had its own nostalgic (and perhaps uncomfortable) charm.

Once you pick up your pastries, you find some standing room at one of the counters facing the windows, the mirrors or wrapped around pillars…and you eat your dessert standing. If you find room by one of the massive windows, you can watch people waiting for the myriad of buses piled up at the stop in front of the patisserie, ready to leave gritty, bustling Pest and go back home to leafy, residential Buda. And, of course, in return for staring at them, they can all watch you eat, underneath a string of lights, and all in high definition clarity. There is something utterly voyeuristic about this place.

French photographer Bruno Bourel, who relocated to Budapest in 1993, created a series of photos on Jégbüfé.

French photographer Bruno Bourel, who relocated to Budapest in 1993, created a series of photos on Jégbüfé.

When Jégbüfé opened its doors in 1952, one could say that it enjoyed a competitive  advantage. Stalinist Hungary had just finished a process of nationalization and Mr. Flaschner, who worked as the district’s director for food services, was able to appropriate the equipment obtained from shuttered or nationalized private confectioneries, for use in the fledgling Jégbüfé. István Bori, who became the café’s first pastry chef, had the opportunity to compete and showcase his sweets at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. Some of the most popular examples of Hungarian cuisine were developed for this international competition by a handful of Hungarian chefs. One such creation was the Somlói galuska, which is a favourite at the Jégbüfé to this day. For those readers of HFP who haven’t tried this: think of Pouding chômeur, but with lots more rum and whipped cream.

Every time I visit Budapest (which is once per year), I go back to Jégbüfé on at least one occasion. I grew up in Budapest in the nineties, and have fantastic memories of the now middle-aged man in salt-and-pepper pants making chocolate, vanilla or jam waffles in that little take-out window at the front of the shop, and of their incredible selection of reasonably priced and tasty cakes, somlói and chestnut puré. On scorching summer days, I would wait in line for ice cream or slush and in the winter, my choice was usually a francia krémes (similar to a mille-feuille), or a chestnut purée, and sometimes both…and all of that usually washed down with a glass of soda water that cost around 30 forints, or less than 20 cents at the time.

Bruno Bourel, a French photographer who relocated to Budapest in 1993, was so mesmerized by Jégbüfé that he created a series of photos about the place. “Jégbüfé’s counter is like a theatre, where every emotion appears: joy, regret, love, reflection…Since I live close by, each day I take a look at the place, to check if I can see something new,” explained Mr. Bourel.

Jégbüfé almost closed a couple of years ago, when the 5th District municipal government privatized the once glamorous, but by then largely abandoned historic building that had provided it a home since 1952, namely the Párisi Udvar (Parisian Court), also known as the Brudern House. The building was completed in 1913, in an eclectic style, combining Gothic and Moorish architecture. Inside the ornate, but dark courtyard of the building were a handful of stores. A state-run travel agency, IBUSZ, also used this as its headquarters. But the most popular commercial establishment was always the Jégbüfé which–incredibly–managed to keep its rental rate close to those established in 1990, until around two years ago, when the building was finally privatized. According to the building’s new owner, Zuhair Awad of the Mellow Mood Group, within two years, it will be turned into a five-star hotel.

The Párisi Udvar (Parisian Court) is set to be turned into a luxury hotel.

The Párisi Udvar (Parisian Court) was privatized in 2014 and is set to be turned into a luxury hotel.

Jégbüfé, fortunately, is here to stay. I wouldn’t say that anyone should expect earth-shattering gastronomical wonders from this storied little place. It tends to get mixed reviews from Budapest foodies–it may not offer the best Hungarian desserts that you can find in the capital, nor the best bargains, but it’s a good place for sampling a wide variety of sweet and savoury Hungarian and continental European treats, it’s unrivaled for those who enjoy people-watching and it is, thankfully, a world apart from the contrived rubbish of the Hungarian tourist traps in the neighbourhood–the places that advertise in poor English and list their “tourist menus” in euros. Locals and tourists are treated alike at the Jégbüfé and–frankly–it’s one of the few places in this busy and touristy area that will give visitors not just a decent slice of cake, but a slice of life in the Hungarian capital.

A selection of cakes during my visit to Jégbüfé in March 2015. A slice for 350 forints (circa $1.60) is a reasonable price, and still considered affordable for most Hungarians.

A selection of cakes during my visit to Jégbüfé in March 2015. A slice for 350 forints (circa $1.60) is a reasonable price, and still considered affordable for most Hungarians.

A Hungarian cheese cake with fruits, during my visit to Jégbüfé in March 2015. At 400 forints per slice (circa $1.85), it's reasonably priced, though certainly pricier than what you would pay outside of Budapest's historic city centre.

A Hungarian cheese cake with fruits, during my visit to Jégbüfé in March 2015. At 400 forints per slice (circa $1.85), it’s reasonably priced, though certainly pricier than what you would pay outside of Budapest’s historic city centre.

Some chestnut purée on offer during my visit in March 2015.

Some chestnut purée on offer during my visit in March 2015, and somlói in the background.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar Miklos Banfi says:

    Not much to add. Informative, nice balanced article and a big slice of my past – iced:)

  2. Avatar Robert Szucs says:

    Can’t wait to taste it.
    Going in September.

  3. Avatar Kathy Molnar says:

    Can’t wait to visit this wonderful dessert bar.

  4. Avatar Robert Mickens says:

    I’ve been visiting Budapest often since 1994 and I immediately fell in love with Jégbüfé on my very first trip.

    A few weeks ago I discovered it now has another branch in Buda. It’s behind Mammut shopping center at Fény utca 15.

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