Ilkovics – People’s Buffet – self-service
In the beginning, there were ‘restaurants’ set up for mass catering, like the Ilkovics opposite Nyugati Terminal Station. Even the penniless could have their one-course dish here. You don’t need much fantasy to imagine this colourful melting pot, where both newly arrived travellers and blue-collar workers were everyday guests. If you associate to greasy meat, sour wine or the smell of fat, you are wrong. A kind of air extractor was installed at Ilkovics, the wine came from their own cellar and they did not depend on their suppliers’ sake in the field of food either.
Later, Ilkovics became People’s Buffet (Népbüfé), where hungry guests could eat from plastic plates, with fork and spoon – there was no knife for safety reasons – standing at counters. It is not a secret that the place was not without troubles. In the fifties, the police lingo called it an infected location because there were breaches of peace, trafficking, and prostitution there as well. According to a legend, the mob that came out from the buffet urged the peaceful demonstrators of 1956 so much that the protest turned into a bloody event. In the 1960s, the self-service (‘selfies’) restaurants were opened on the places of People’s Buffets typically, where guests could sit down barely, as a novelty.
What was a selfie like? This type of catering unit operated in the form of the so called sliding tray service, whose most visible characteristic was the sectioned serving of food types. In this system, navigation was helped not only with hanged-out menus but also with neon signs, in order not to look for vegetables at the meat food counter.
According to remembering people, the rooms were crowded and airless at noon, and smelled food to put it bluntly. However, furnishing was practical, with easy clean aluminium trays, cutlery and jugs of water on the tables. Selfies were popular not only because of their locations, but also because of their affordable prices and the cuisine was rather good; what’s more, guests could see in advance what they were going to eat.
At Pajtás, ‘máglyarakás’ pie was legendary, and the grilled chicken was fantastic at Hallo Bar. Of course, there have always been crabs, but many people still feel nostalgia about these lunches. By the seventies, twenty-two self-service restaurants operated in Budapest, and the five-year plan experts aimed to open fifty-two units by the end of the 1980s. It is true that people in hurry, who do not want any serving ceremonies, prefer self-service and fast-food restaurants.
A bite of capitalism in the socialist consumer society
What was the name of the first Hungarian fast-food restaurant chain? Of course it was City Grill. The chain was established by the Taverna Belvárosi Vendéglátóipari Vállalat in the middle of the eighties. Their first buffet was opened on Kálvin Square, but neither its product range nor its outfit was full-fledged. The buffet itself was a stand where they sold everything from pancakes to hamburger. By 1985, the company developed its supply chain. The typical plastic hamburger boxes were produced by the Hungária Műanyagfeldolgozó Vállalat, the KERIPAR was responsible for the furniture, and the Rákóczi Sütő- és Édesipari Szövetkezet provided baked goods.
In 1985, a restaurant was opened in front of Vásárcsarnok, and in November another one in Váci Street at the Taverna Hotel, which was probably their most famous unit. As of that time, the name Taverna appeared in the name of the company as well. In 1986, the City Grill that was already called a chain officially was extended with two more restaurants. What was their hamburger like? It was fabulous! Delicious bun with a large piece of meat. They also had sausages, chicken nuggets and strudels. It was not the hamburger that counted, but the western feeling of life! The staff dressed in uniforms, the disposable napkin on the trays and the throw-away cups with their own logo: these accessories let an insight into a really different world.
Unfortunately, the rule of the first Hungarian fast-food chain did not take long, because McDonald’s already knocked on the door. The owners of Taverna thought of that too and escaped to the countryside. The agony of City Grill with about twenty restaurants started at the end of the eighties. After the privatisation of the company they were not competitive simply.
Translated by Zita Aknai