Balaton — Definitely not a cookie-cutter restaurant in Cleveland

A Menorah stood on the ornate hutch, alongside Kalocsai embroideries, Hungarian country style jugs called Miska kancsó, hurricane lamps and a framed photograph of Balaton Restaurant’s late founder, Terezia Nevery — quite an eclectic mix, but a welcome change from the dime-a-dozen family restaurant chains around my hotel on the periphery of Cleveland. I spent an extended weekend on the shores of Lake Erie earlier this month, where people of Hungarian origins still comprise 1.5% of the city’s population. After a precarious start and lengthy delays due to a mammoth snow storm flying out of Ottawa, I finally landed in Cleveland, picked up my rental car, dropped off my luggage at the La Quinta Inn and headed over to the city’s east-end to try out a restaurant that has been around for nearly six decades — an eternity in the hospitality sector.

Cleveland’s Balaton Restaurant with the author in the mirror… (Photo: C. Adam)

When I arrived at Balaton, I was greeted by an elderly gentleman, Louis Olah, who arrived in the United States in 1957, joining his mother and stepfather in the city’s Buckeye neighbourhood — also home to St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish. Two middle-aged women who spoke with each other in Hungarian, and a young woman who sat at a table selling poppy seed and walnut beigli, and other homemade pastries for take-out, created the atmosphere of a restaurant that truly felt family-operated.

It was a slow Friday night, as the snow blanketed Shaker Square and kept falling ominously. A few regulars, all speaking English, ate the staples of Hungarian cuisine: chicken paprikás, Bécsi szelet (schnitzel), Hortobágyi palacsinta (this is actually a relatively new innovation, originating in the Kádár regime), and stuffed cabbage. At the table across from me, an older gentleman dined with a younger man, the latter being something of an expert in Balaton’s fare, debating whether to go for a “Dobosh tort” (Dobos torta) or a cherry strudel (rétes). I decided that the quintessential winter dish — a hearty disznótoros was in order. All the while a group of friends and Democratic political activists huddled at another table debating passionately the merits of Bernie Sanders versus Elizabeth Warren over stuffed cabbage.

The disznótoros (Wurst platter) at Balaton.

Portions at Balaton are no laughing matter — expect a traditional presentation and the servers are accustomed to guests asking for a doggy bag when they can no longer fathom the plate of food before them.

Balaton seems to have found the trick to be appealing to both those guests who have Hungarian heritage and therefore an understanding of the nation’s cuisine, as well as those who were perhaps introduced to it at this well-established restaurant and have come to rather fancy the food. Either way, my main impression is that the guests were mostly assimilated, the only spoken Hungarian I heard was from the staff. More than anything else, Balaton seems to be a place where one goes to escape both the trendy Yuppie eateries, as well as the chains — getting instead an experience that feels a lot more like dinner in someone’s home.

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