The building The Gay Hussar inhabits dates back to 1760 and has played host to restaurants since the '30s. And with manager John Wroebel having been in the post since 1988, the expression 'if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it' springs to mind - and quite right too.
Early patrons to this London institution were mainly Communists and Labour party supporters, but 'Tory wets dined here when Mrs. Thatcher was in power', according to Wroebel. Today, Labour MPs and those in the media are bringing it back to the Left, but whatever your political persuasion, it’s a cosy and inviting place. The rich red walls display a multitude of Hungarian plates, whilst a load of little alcoves play host to rows of history books. It's certainly not somewhere that feels snooty, even if there are very smart white tablecloths and political memorabilia that includes satirical cartoons and letters from Michael Foot and James Callaghan.
It’s a popular place, for both large and small groups and couples. Background music is played very quietly, and the fact that the venue is carpeted means the acoustics allow pleasant conversion without you having to raise your voice. It’s not an angsty Michelin sort of restaurant and doesn’t try to be - it’s all rather relaxed and pleasant, aided by a friendly and efficient staff.
The menu has probably changed little since it first opened and it doesn't go down any faddish routes either - so don't expect staff to be talking about 'seasonality', 'provenance' or 'small plates'. Instead, it serves reliable, if not hugely exciting, Hungarian country food.
A starter of chilled cherry soup succeeds in not being too sweet and is a perfect foil for the rich main meal to follow. Breaded deep fried mushrooms with home made tartare sauce are perfectly acceptable; crisp and earthy. Other choices could include chicken pancakes or the frequently requested smoked Hungarian sausage.
For mains, fish dumplings in dill and mushroom sauce with rice; and veal goulash with galuska (dumplings) are the most popular choices. Chicken in creamy paprika with those ubiquitous dumpings is rich and satisfying, whilst a red cabbage side dish is also a notable hit. Portions are enormous, but somehow not much is left on the plate. Do make sure you leave some room for a dessert as they are very good indeed. Of particular note is the poppy seed strudel served with home made vanilla ice-cream - it's flaky and chewy at the same time, and delicious to boot.
The wine list here is comprehensive, with a big nod towards the reds, probably to accompany all those rich meats. The Hungarian house red (Lake Balaton) is exceptionally good; robust and full bodied. It’s sold by the glass but order a bottle; one glass is just not enough. As well as Hungarian wines and liqueurs (such as Slivovitz and Unicum), they have Pol Roger champagne if you're in the mood to celebrate.
The Last Word
There are places that serve better food, but if you want a genuine bit of history, reliable Hungarian comfort food and a friendly environment oozing with atmosphere, you should definitely give this a go.