“We could always try the secret Hungarian restaurant.”
Lamenting the disappearance of eateries serving central European soul food with my cousin Pete – our beloved Mocca, the last one standing, closed over a decade ago after 47 years in business – his comment while we were having lunch in Midtown a few weeks ago threw me for a loop. As the only member of my generation born in the old country, he had once again proven himself an expert on all things Hungarian-American.
I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. Though not exactly a restaurant, The First Hungarian Literary Society was, according to a few sources on the Internet, a place to experience some real magyar konyha. He hadn’t been either so we agreed to meet outside the East 79th Street club last night.
The establishment doesn’t exactly shout its existence from the rooftops. Aside from the mandatory health department inspection sticker (it got an “A”) that one might assume was for the actual, unrelated restaurant at ground level, you would never know there was an eatery upstairs. The only sign once you enter the vestibule was this:
But then it became clear that this was no ordinary apartment building. There were various plaques and posters of their membership with faded old photos lining the hallway. Those people reading this who have traveled in Hungary or elsewhere in Mitteleuropa will recognize the style of photo from gimnázium and középiskola graduation posters. Here’s one from their 35th anniversary in 1924:
And here’s Pete standing next to one from their 50th anniversary. The people in the photos look like younger versions of the patrons of Mocca and Tip Top who would pinch our cheeks as we spent hours and hours there during countless Sunday afternoons in the 1970s with our dads and mutual grandpa.
Here’s me next to a 105th anniversary one with color photos. If you look closely you’ll notice that there are fewer members and that the average age is way up there – a sign that the club’s heyday is long past. There would be more signs when we actually reached the “club.”
The woman at the reception as we entered appeared to be the only employee. To my immense relief, quoting Attila József or György Faludy wasn’t a requirement for being admitted. A few words in Hungarian got us in the door and quickly seated. For the night we went there at least reservations weren’t necessary as no one else was eating. There were a couple of lively card games going on:
On to the food. The prix fixe $25 menu, four courses plus coffee, was a bit more than Mocca, even adjusted for inflation. It still won’t break the bank, though. For an appetizer I had körözött (you may know it as liptauer) and Pete had chopped liver. Both were authentic but not amazing. Here’s the körözött:
Then came a perfectly tasty vegetable soup. For the main course I had borjúpörkölt (veal paprikash) with galuska (egg dumplings) and uborkasaláta (cucumber salad). It was excellent.
Pete’s stuffed cabbage was good too.
For dessert, we both had palacsinta (crepes) – mine with walnuts and jam and his with túró (curd or sweetened farmer’s cheese). I think they had to improvise with his filling but it was okay. Mine was yummy.
Finally came coffee served in a glass and some pleasant, unrushed conversation. Just like in the Old World, it would be rude to bring the check without the customer asking. Grandpa used to occupy a table for hours back in the day on 2nd Avenue, reading Népszabadság and gossiping (granted, he often would have two meals). We finally found the waitress/cook/receptionist, paid, and left with slightly higher serum cholesterol than a couple of hours earlier.
All in all the food was authentic but not amazing. The location that oozed history and kitsch was the main attraction. Oh the agglutinative, multisyllabic stories those walls could tell! You needn’t have grown up speaking Hunglish to relish this little piece of history, but it probably helps. I can’t wait to go back with people who would appreciate this slice of a nearly vanished world. Business isn’t exactly booming and the clientele wasn’t lively. I hope they hang on and perhaps find some fresh blood so that there are many more anniversary posters to come.