There was once an EMKE
"I'm waiting for you today at seven at the Nemzeti, where the No. 6 stops, The gypsy of the EMKE is playing in front of it..." The following excerpt, which is heard in the operetta by István Békeffi and Lajtai Lajos, is perhaps the best-known reference to the place. A few decades ago, EMKE was a concept, a landmark like Moszkva Square. Of course, the acronym lived on in the memories of the people of Pest primarily as a café. To find out where the name came from and who we have to thank for its creation, take a look at our latest selection of catering history.
EMKE, the Transylvanian Hungarian Public Culture Association, was originally founded in 1885 in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) with the aim of strengthening the Hungarian language and national consciousness, "fraternal feeling" among the Hungarians of Transylvania, by establishing and supporting cultural and economic institutions. As was typical of the period, there were several organisations with similar aims. There was not only EMKE, but also DMKE, an acronym that stood for the Hungarian Public Cultural Association of South Hungary.
In 1890, a tenement house was built on the corner of Kerepesi Road - today Rákóczi Road - and the grand boulevard, with a possible café space on the ground floor with a larger floor area. Jónás Wassermann was a well-known figure in the catering trade in Pest at the time, and an enthusiastic member of EMKE. His restaurant was located in the Orczy House, and contemporaries say that Wassermann was a man of large stature who kept double-sized sheets in the Rudas steam bath. What was he like as a restaurateur? It is said that he served his guests such large portions that even a 'small portion' was a man's task. Business was good, so he did not think twice when he heard about the Kerepesi Road premises. However, he did not think much about the name either, and in exchange for considerable financial support, he bought the right to use the name EMKE, not alone of course, as there was also an EMKE café in Nagyvárad (Oradea) and Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mures).
By this time, the association was already enjoying considerable prestige, and had a name so well known that it even appeared as a brand name. In Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), the founding city, the EMKE Palace was a reminder of the long-established organisation, and a drugstore also adopted the association's name. The NGO flourished until the 1920s; when in 1948 the communist Petru Groza government banned the activities of NGOs, the EMKE's star was finally extinguished.
The EMKE café
The 'protagonist' of our selection, the café unit in the capital opened its doors in 1894. The then suburban Kerepesi Road was becoming increasingly popular, and word of EMKE began to spread rapidly. Wassermann did not forget about the association, paying them two fillérs for each coffee, which brought in much more money than passing round the cap.
Another factor in the rapid growth of the café was the fact that actors from the People's Theatre (later the National Theatre) used to come here, including Lujza Blaha, who also lived in the building that housed the café. The café also had a rich selection of newspapers, the volumes of the Pallas Encyclopaedia and a lending library operated in it too.
Nevertheless, what really distinguished it from the rivals was the gypsy music. Mr Wassermann had engaged excellent gipsy bandleaders and bands, and his son, Mór Wassermann, followed in this tradition, taking over the management of the restaurant after his father's death in 1901.
The younger Wassermann invested heavily, setting up a confectionery and a bar, a novelty in the 1920s with its high bar and bar stools, and in the evenings, a cabaret show entertained guests. Interestingly, during the Romanian occupation, Attila József worked here as a bread boy. The café burnt down in 1945, reopened in the autumn, was nationalised in 1949 and was destroyed again in 1956, when it suffered more damage than during the World War. After five years of renovation, it reopened in 1961, but by then there was no trace of the old café, although many well-known writers, poets and actors - István Csukás, Gyula Hernádi, Irén Psota - visited it. Staying at restaurants, many people must remember that the Keszey restaurant operated on the corner of Akácfa Street and Rákóczi Road, where there is a fast-food restaurant now. After the nationalization, the restaurant became EMKE coffee bar, with a Mackó buffet and bar.
Typically, everything in the area was named after the well-established brand EMKE, as in the case of the EMKE Office Building, one block away. Perhaps that is why the name EMKE has not faded from the public consciousness. Even in the 1960s, the underpass, which was built as part of the underground construction, was not only called EMKE by the public, but was also used for a long time on official plans. After the regime change, the site of the legendary café was used as a beer bar for a while and is now home to bank branches.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Saly Noémi: Törzskávéházamból zenés kávéházba, Osiris, Budapest, 2019.