A visit to Gundel, which opened in 1894, is still a little like time travel: The large millennial guest room with its heavy blue-upholstered chairs and sofas, the Art Nouveau lamps and rugs with golden ornaments evoke the golden time of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. It’s not at all hard to imagine that Gundel used to be one of the most exclusive restaurants in all Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. You can almost see the crème de la crème of the millennium society meeting here to enjoy culinary specialties.

Gundel’s terrace and garden radiate a similar historical charm with their lush greenery. There you can enjoy the fading sun under umbrellas – of the characteristic Gundel-blue shade – and treetops, surrounded by palms in buckets and blue-white tablecloths. This is where Attila Bándoli’s successor, Knoll, who has been leading the restaurant for eight months now, greets us.


A legendary restaurant in the course of time

"I am already the second German man heading Gundel," he jokes, referring to the origin of the legendary founder and eponym, Karl Gundel. Karl’s father, Johann Gundel, was born in the mid-19th century in Ansbach, Bavaria, and he travelled to Budapest as a young man. In 1879 he laid down the foundation of the family gastro business, which attained its crown jewel in 1910: today’s Gundel restaurant, managed under the leadership of his son.

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Karl Gundel is still considered as a visionary in Hungarian gastronomy. He managed to bring traditional Hungarian dishes to a refined level renowned worldwide, and added numerous new dishes to the portfolio. The most famous of these novelties are probably the Gundel pancakes, served with a filling of raisins, walnuts and rum. After the restaurant was nationalised under communist rule and Karl Gundel died, the splendour of the venerable house faded somewhat. Still, Hungarians stayed loyal to their Gundel and even defended it from being renamed to a new "system conforming" name. "Today there are hardly any people who remember this, but in the socialist times there were only about two or three weeks when the Gundel was called something else," Knoll recounts. "However, the resistance was so strong that they stopped trying to rename it." After the political turn the Gundel was bought back from the state by businessmen Ronald S. Lauder and George Lang in 1991. It was renovated to an international standard and by the new millennium was back among the best restaurants in the world. Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II and Hillary Clinton ate there. Not so long ago Arnold Schwarzenegger visited.

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Evolution instead of revolution

Don’t think that a brand with tradition and reputation known way beyond the country’s borders can run on its own. Knoll, with more than 30 years of hotel and hospitality experience, knows that being unable to change often means the end of large houses:

"A concept from 1910 or 1920 would not work anymore today," he says. "Also, guest demands and wishes are different now." This is why he formulated the goal that "although Gundel’s history and traditions must be preserved, they also need to be refined with something new".

What is needed is an evolution and actualisation of its gastronomic concept to fine-tune the restaurant to the present situation, and not a real revolution. However, considering that the restaurant has more than 100 years of history, this is not an easy job: "Almost everyone has some kind of emotional connection and some kind of own idea about Gundel," Knoll says. "This makes renewal quite hard."

To "steer the restaurant into the 21st century", he sought reinforcement. For one, chef Zsolt Litauszki, who since recently has been handling the culinary concept of the whole Gundel Kft company, which includes Bagolyvár and Gundel catering besides the restaurant itself. His help should make it possible for the already very high-level dishes to hit the next level.

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Of course, this needs to be done with caution: "There are certain dishes that will always be part of the menu, like goulash soup," Knoll opines. "Gundel pancakes and especially goose liver, which has always been a top seller at Gundel, since the offered quality has always been so high. By the way, simply reworking the original recipes will not do, and this is why Zsolt reworked all the recipes for us according to his own ideas."

In general, Gundel would like to compose a menu that has dishes rooted in the old traditions but with a more contemporary execution, meaning less heavy but more refined food. This also means that seasonality has a more important role to play. "This is why we have changed to our autumn menu from 18 September," Knoll says.


Business lunch in City Park

Besides the kitchen, the new manager would like to adjust the service to the challenges of the 21st century: "This does not mean that we are going to dress our waiters in a more modern uniform," he assures. Dishes will still be served on noble Hungarian Zsolnay porcelain plates, just like before. "But the guests are much more open today, they go to a restaurant and they want to try something new. This also influences their interaction with the waiters. Guests are looking for much more advice today."

So that news of Gundel’s evolution will reach the broad public, Knoll also brought in public relations reinforcement in the person of Barbara Angelus. Her main focus is changing the perception of the restaurant. "Of course, Gundel is a special restaurant," she says. "You don’t just come here to eat, you come for the experience. We wanted for the people to see that not only a wedding or a 70th birthday may be a good occasion for visiting. A good week, a good business deal or a special date can also be a good occasion to treat yourself with this everyday luxury."

Gundel would like to publicise that it offers an exquisite lunch menu every day from 12.00 to 15.00: For HUF 6500 or 7900 you can try a three-course menu containing delicacies such as roasted duck’s heart. It promises to give your money’s worth and is a good choice for a more formal business lunch.

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However, what Angelus is striving for more than anything is to get out of the box: "Gundel does not want to compete with star restaurants that attract primarily those people for whom the dishes are the most important. Our target group is rather composed of those people who are looking for the combination of excellent dishes, first-class service and a wonderful ambience."

Knoll adds: "Our goal is to become a traditional place with a modern touch, where food, service and ambience are equally part of the experience. Our place opposes the trend that places only the plate in the focus of the restaurant experience.".


125 years of Gundel

However, changes take time. Knoll compares the restaurant to a tanker that has been sailing the ocean for a long time: you can’t just turn the wheel and take a sudden turn. Similarly, the readjustment of Gundel will happen gradually. "This restaurant cannot be changed overnight," he says. "This is why Gundel has managed to survive for such a long time in the first place. It’s based on a solid concept."

# Chef Zsolt Litauszki

Having the opportunity to steer the colossus into the future as its captain is both a personal challenge and honour for him. Next year the traditional restaurant will celebrate its 125th birthday and the occasion will be properly celebrated, though we must wait and see for the details.


Restaurant Gundel
Budapest, District XIV, 4 Gundel Károly Road
Open: Monday - Thursday 12.00 - 23.00, Fridays and Saturdays until midnight. Sundays 11.30 - 15.00 (brunch) and 19.00 - 23.00.
Reservations at (+36-1) 889-8111
See the website at gundel.hu

Prices
Appetisers and soups: HUF 2900 - 9500
Main dishes: HUF 5900 - 19500


Peter Knoll started his career by studying to become a cook. He finished two schools in parallel in Cologne and Villingen, Germany. Knoll moved to Budapest in 1995, first as a Rooms Division Manager and later as the Sales and Marketing Director in Kempinski Hotel Corvinus. Between 1999 and 2001 he managed the exclusive Hempel Hotel in London, before two years in St. Petersburg at Grand Hotel Europe. In 2003 Knoll returned to Budapest for three months as the deputy director of Corinthia Hotel Budapest. He had further stints in Tallin, Budapest again, Prague, Croatia and Acaba (Jordan). His latest post was in the Palais Hansen Kempinski, Vienna.

Despite his globetrotting, he never completely abandoned Hungary. "I always stayed connected to the country all over these years," he says.

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