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Bar Worship and Non-alcoholic Revelations

David Holzer goes in search of ginger beer and bars with a near religious fervor.

The Michelin-starred Costes Downtown.

I stopped drinking nine years ago but I still love a good bar. This fascinates my partner. Last winter we were in the gorgeous American Bar in Vienna designed by Adolf Loos in 1908, whiling away a bitterly cold, rainy afternoon. “You look more relaxed than I’ve ever seen you,” she said. “It’s like you’re in church.”

This may have had something to do with the way the light shone through the onyx-colored stained-glass windows. But there is definitely something almost mystical about the best bars.

Although I say so myself, I have a sixth sense when it comes to finding great watering holes. So, I can say with authority that the Jelen Bistro is one of them, even if I only discovered the Jelen because a friend suggested we meet there.

The Jelen is on the edge of District VIII, once a dubious neighborhood but now, according to Vogue, “a delightfully shabby district... Budapest’s must-visit spot”. Going purely by appearances, the Jelen crowd was a mix of the obviously arty and the more normal, suggesting that the Eighth hasn’t yet become another identikit hipster haven.

The bar itself is big and airy but it’s not like you’re drinking in an aircraft hangar. There’s plenty of dark wood furniture, adding to the feeling that this is a long-established joint. Even if, as is highly likely, the Jelen is not that old.

Substantial Menu

We didn’t eat, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute, but the menu is substantial and includes breakfast. The wine list is reasonable and there’s a decent choice of beers. Because the Jelen was clearly created by someone who knew what it takes to make a great bar, I hoped that there might be something non-alcoholic on offer that was a little more interesting than the usual.

“Do you have ginger beer?” I asked. Our waiter, dressed all in black with slicked back hair, shook his head. I settled for yet another giant lemonade with elderberry flavoring.

The reason we were just having drinks and not eating was because I’d decided to broaden my culinary horizons in Budapest and go upmarket. In a big way. I’m sure I’m not the first person to remark on the fact that Costes Downtown is appropriately named. But, even though our bill was around HUF 83,000 (roughly EUR 280) for three courses for three people, dining at Costes Downtown is certainly an experience.

The restaurant (which opened in 2015 and received a Michelin star in 2016, and has an older sibling called simply Costes that also has a Michelin Star) is one of those places where the waiters give you a little spiel before each dish. Faced with my partner and her sister, who couldn’t take this seriously and started teasing them in Hungarian, the Costes waiters shrugged their heavily muscled shoulders, grinned and gave up.

Consequently, I really couldn’t tell you much about the wee amuse-bouches we were served between the dishes we’d ordered. I do know that the first was composed of dried vegetables topped with dabs of some sort of puree, designed to look like flowers and served on a bed of stones. I must admit I thought at first that these were brown rolls. Luckily, even though I was starving, I didn’t pop one into my mouth.

Holy Ginger Grail

Although the food was incredible – as it should have been – the highlight of the Costes experience for me was a non-alcoholic revelation.

When the waiter asked for our drinks order, I looked hopefully up at her (she was very tall) and said, “You don’t have ginger beer, do you?” She beamed down at me like a Hungarian lighthouse. “We do,” she said. I’m sure my own face must have lit up like that of a child on Christmas day. “And we have different flavors.”

“Different flavors,” I said, “Wow,” blushing as I realized I sounded a lot like Homer Simpson. I chose a ginger beer flavored with coffee to start with, secure in the knowledge that there were three others to try.

Incidentally, the Homer Simpson reference is not as arbitrary as it seems. As every good Hungarian knows, the original animator of the Simpsons was the brilliant Hungarian Gábor Csupó. This, according to my partner, is why the Simpsons look like a typical Hungarian family. Her words, not mine. I’ve yet to see a Hungarian with yellow skin and blue hair and I’m looking forward to it.

But back to the gyömbérsör. I can’t say it was as purely refreshing as British ginger beer but it was certainly a not-so-soft drink to reckon with. The version with coffee lasted me an hour. Invited to try another, I plumped for ginger beer with grapefruit. This, too, was a fair fight and took me the rest of the evening to finish. Not that I’m complaining. I usually drink so many soft drinks over the course of an evening that I get to know the bathroom of any bar as well as I do its battle-scarred banquettes.

It turns out that the gyömbérsör is produced by a Hungarian named Péter Steierlein. I would love to know why he decided Hungary needed its own ginger beer. I’d also like to find out if it’s stocked anywhere other than Costes Downtown. Sadly, Péter didn’t reply to my email before my deadline for this article. If you’re reading this Péter, get in touch. 

Jelen Bistro is at Blaha Lujza tér 1, behind the Corvin Mall. Costes Downtown is one the ground floor of the Prestige Hotel at Vigyázó Ferenc u. 5.