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The Gay Hussar: Politics & Goulash

Published 8 January 2011

The Gay Hussar opened in 1953 as London’s first Hungarian restaurant. Now over 58 years later, it’s still going strong.

The restaurant was opened by Victor Sassie, whose exploration into Hungarian food started when he was sent to Budapest by the British Hotel and Restaurant Association in 1932. It was here where he trained under Károly Gundel, a then well-known Hungarian chef, and upon his return to London he was inspired to open up his first restaurant, which he called Budapest, on Soho’s Dean Street. A second Budapest followed on nearby Frith Street, and then came The Gay Hussar on Greek Street.

Though it’s unclear exactly how it started, The Gay Hussar quickly became popular with the Labour party and renowned as the location of much party political plotting. It was where talks of Michael Foot’s rise to leadership was discussed in the 70s, and was headline news prior to this when The Daily Mail published a bill from the restaurant showing how lavishly a Soviet delegate had been treated by the Labour party – a short-lived scandal that draws many parallels with the recent MPs expenses debacle.

Though the political patronage is less regular these days, its ever present in the form of the restaurant’s vast collection of former dining guests’ books and manifestos and the now world famous caricatures of politicians which line the walls. The drawings were made as the politicians ate, and each one is signed by the diner, now framed and immortalised though many themselves long gone.

It’s a shame that of all the talk of The Gay Hussar’s past, little is heard of its present or indeed its food. Labour may have lost its way of late, but there’s no indication of the same here. The heavy sense of history and timelessness are just background scenery to the focal points of large pickled herrings with sweet sliced peppers and sour cream; hearty beef goulash; and crispy roast duck. Whatever your views of the politicians who’ve enjoyed them, there’s certainly no danger of any of these dishes lacking the courage of their conviction. They come in hefty portions and distribute their varying flavours by the bucket load. The roast duck comes literally piled on a plate with braised red cabbage and enough boiled potatoes to send a low-carb dieter into anaphylactic shock. Great for the greedy, and with crispy skin, meltingly tender meat and a side of apple sauce, few would find the task of finishing the duck too tedious.

An array of equally un-light desserts and some very gluggable wine, including Hungary’s famous Tokaji, complete the experience. And it is an experience which is totally unique. The Gay Hussar may once have been a fitting representation of Hungarian cuisine, but its utter lack of change (many of the dishes on the menu have been there from the outset) leaves it at odds with the culinary scene of the country today – which includes a Michelin star, no less.

The Gay Hussar is completely its own thing, and as outdated and lacking refinement as it might seem, that’s why we love it and why it’s an undisputed London institution that’s well worth a visit. And who knows, you might just catch Ed Milliband and co plotting the downfall of the coalition…

The Gay Hussar – Soho
Cuisine: Traditional Hungarian
Address: 2 Greek Street, London W1D 4NB
Reservations/Booking Tel: 020 7437 0973
Website: www.thegayhussar.co.uk