The Gay Hussar, a Soho institution and the only Hungarian restaurant in Britain, has been in the news much over the last couple of years. In Autumn 2013 a decision by Corus hotel group to sell the place drew loud protests from its loyal habitués. A press-campaign was started to preserve the restaurant, where leftish political meetings and dinners have taken place since the war, and a Goulash cooperative was even proposed as a way of seeing off the threat. Happily, there has now been a stay of execution and, for the immediate future at least, the Gay Hussar’s survival looks more likely.
What is there about this restaurant that its proposed closure drew such howls of outrage? Partly it’s the warmth of its atmosphere, the fact that it’s one of the few restaurants in London where you feel more comfortable inside than out. In the words of journalist Matthew Norman, ‘It is one of the cosiest, most welcoming rooms I’ve ever dined in (and that includes private houses)’. The wood panels, the rust-coloured carpet, the sense of hush from the street and the specially alcoved end-tables ideal for dining alone: all these put you at your ease as soon as you enter. Then there is the service: waiters who are attentive enough to notice when you need something, but refrain from asking you every five minutes if everything is all right, and John Wrobel, one of the more memorable restaurant managers in London: cordial, courteous, urbane but unsnooty – a model, in fact, of what a restauranteur should be. Add to all this the gallery of Martin Rowson’s political caricatures on the wall, the private dining-rooms for hire upstairs and the bookshelves crammed with ministers’ memoirs and you have somewhere quite unlike anywhere else in London.
The Gay Hussar’s history is also part of its appeal. The Labour Party dining hall of choice, frequented after the war by the likes of Nye Bevan, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle, it’s been in its time such a hotbed of gossip, conspiracy and scandal that Viktor Sassie, the Gay Hussar’s founder, was even rumoured to have installed secret microphones in its upstairs rooms to cream off the best secrets as they were muttered. A faint atmosphere of intrigue has always clung to the place: in the 1970s, when a Soviet delegation was entertained so lavishly here by a British trade union that the story was splashed on the Daily Mail’s front cover, there was panic that it had all been leaked to the press by a mole on the staff. There are other colourful stories too: of Tom Driberg, the notoriously louche socialist MP, courting Mick Jagger – in more ways than one – to stand as Labour candidate; and, more recently, of Tony Blair being convinced by a colleague – at Table Number Ten, aptly enough – to make his 1994 bid for the party leadership. And the list goes on: the restaurant is a history of post-war politics in miniature, all of it taking place, just as it should, over some of the fieriest food this side of Calcutta.
As for that food, the Gay Hussar has most of the sturdy Hungarian standards on the menu: Hortobágyi Pancakes, stuffed with minced chicken (£7); Gulyás, not a stew but a thick meat soup (£7), Csirkepaprikás, chicken served with Hungarian noodles and a paprika cream sauce (£14.50), with starters like wild cherry soup (£6) and desserts like Gesztenyepüré, the chestnut puree with rum and vanilla (a lunch menu of all these is available, at £21 for two courses or £25 for three). There are different grades of golden Tokaji wine (from around £35 to £45), more everyday wines like Villányi Merlot and Egri Bikavér (around £25-£32), and a range of pálinkas, the fruit brandy flavoured with apricot, plum or pear, which make good digestifs (£7 a shot).
This Saturday lunchtime I have, to start, a Jókai Bableves, a thick and resonant bean-soup which is a winter-staple in Hungary, and the Csirkepaprikás to follow – pleasantly paprika-ed and creamy, and served with misshapen Galuski, the pebble-like Hungarian noodles. It’s not for diners with cholesterol problems – the chicken-skins and sour cream see to that – nor for those who enjoy light cooking, but for people who like a full plate it’s satisfying food, solid and smokily flavoured. While eating I watch the other diners – tourists and businessmen and no obvious statesemen or spies, but a Hungarian family too eating away very cheerfully, and muttering to each other in fluent Magyar.
For dessert I have Gundel Palacsintak, the Hungarian crepes filled with raisins, walnuts, lemon zest, brandy and cream, and served with a hot chocolate sauce. I’ve had Gundel pancakes in Hungary that were more to my taste – the filling more raisiny, the chocolate sauce richer, the whole thing being served with more sense of a sumptuous ritual – but these are certainly good enough to warrant ordering, especially if you’ve never had this lavish dish before.
Overall I’m a contented diner, and am relieved the Gay Hussar won’t be bowing out just yet. As they rise to leave, the family break off their Hungarian to bid goodbye to the staff. ‘Everything has been delicious,’ the mother says in a thick Budapest accent. I have to say, I agree.
The Gay Hussar Restaurant, 2 Greek Street, Soho, W1D 4NB. Tel: 020 7437 0973. www.gayhussar.co.uk
Open for Lunch, Monday to Saturday 12.15pm, with last orders at 2.30pm.
Open for Dinner, Monday to Saturday 5.30pm, with last orders at 10.45pm.