Pizza King Express is maybe the best place to eat in Budapest. I will probably get shot down in flames for saying this. At the ‘traditional’ restaurants serving Hungarian cuisine you will likely hear more English than Hungarian and will pay more money. You may also encounter surely staff if the place is popular. But not here. The staff here are a bunch of jokers and the food is ridiculously cheap even with a lousy pound sterling. A slice of pizza is 200 Forints (less than 60p). A tiramisu (enough for two) – yes, you better believe it – is 300 Forints (a little north of 80p).
During Communist times in many Eastern European countries you had these places called bar mlecznys, which in Polish literally translates to ‘milk bars’ – dirt cheap restaurants serving pretty basic food, but perfectly good. They used to be very popular with students or anyone without much money. Most of these places are a thing of the past now. There are a few still kicking around. For me Pizza King Express represents a new kind of ‘pimped up’ bar mleczny. That is, it may not be as threadbare as a traditional bar mleczny. Maybe I am stretching it using the words ‘pimped up’. But you get my drift. It has the same prices as the traditional bar mlecznys of yore filled by the same type of people who used to visit the originals. The only difference is that the menu is more global. Dare I say more ‘Westernised’. You can get pizza, kebabs, baklava (delicious sweat cake), tiramisu and rice pudding and all for just a few coins. Its a fraction of the price of Pizza Hut, which is next door, and a better and more delicious experience.
Hungary is not a rich country and wages are feeble. Budapest can be an expensive city if you are a local in menial employment. For that reason places like Pizza King Express are a godsend for locals. Its funny that most congregate here for a slice of cheap pizza and less at the ‘traditional’ Hungarian establishments no matter how good or tasty the food may be at those places.
The original bar mzlecznys were not only a product of Communism. They were a feature of when that part of the world was a much less connected place and people had limited access to information. In today’s post-communist globalised world with this tool called the internet, that has all changed. Younger generations from former communist countries are more aware, savvy and knowledgeable about the world, other cultures and how other people around the world live and their tastes. Pizza King Express caters for this younger generation as well as others who don’t want to spend too much money. In a paradoxical way, it is more ‘authentic’ to eat here than at the traditional restaurants, which promote themselves as ‘authentic’. It may be a pedantic and trivial observation, but there is a kernel of truth to it.
By Nicholas Peart
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