In a previous life, while working with a think-tank in London, a report came across my desk that shocked me. It coined the term Ghost Town Britain. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of banks and post offices – they’re both big businesses; the streamlining of services is part and parcel of their operations. I wasn’t shocked at the reported disappearance of corner shops; I could see for myself how the behemoths like Tesco and Waitrose were bagging up the competition. What really got to me was the reported demise of the local pub. A colleague of the Muslim faith didn’t understand why I was upset. Fewer pubs meant fewer people drinking, and that had to be good, he said. But, I argued, pubs are much more than shorts and pints; they’re often the backbone of community life.
This, perhaps, is particularly true when you’re living in another country, away from what’s familiar, in the process of making a new life. I’ve looked back at the various cities in which I’ve lived and realise that many of the friends I made (and am still in touch with), were friends I met in a pub.
Starting over can be daunting. And the older you get, the more difficult it is to break into well-established social circles. Having a local pub helps, a concept embodied by the long-running TV show, Cheers!, and its theme tune with the refrain “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.”
Expat pubs are like nation-states, serving up a fare that appeals to the displaced. In Budapest, for example, Jack Doyle’s and Becketts both fly the Irish flag and attract a community of expats from all over. The Caledonia gives a nod to the Scottish presence in the city. And strangely, it was from the Cale that a local Hungarian pub was born, one that is rapidly becoming a contender in the home-from-home market for many English-speaking expats in the city.
Back in 2009, Budapest-born Zoltán Farkas started working at The Caledonia as a bartender. He soon endeared himself to the clientele. Over the next eight years, Zoli got to know his punters by name and nationality. Although he’s never been to Scotland (or Ireland, England, or Wales for that matter), then co-owner Patrick McMenamin (himself a Scot) introduced him to the concept of banter, that back and forth between punter and publican that is such an inherent part of the ultimate pub experience. A quick study, Zoli soon realised that it’s not enough to offer good beer, fine wines, and decent food – the pub needs to have a personality, too.
Last year, Zoli got the opportunity to go out on his own, to see if he could replicate the down-home experience and create a pub where everyone would be welcome, where everyone would want to go, where people would be known by name. A regular Hungarian customer had spotted his talent, listened to his dream, and decided to back him. A family man with a beautiful wife, Szandra, and two lovely daughters, Zoli’s decision was influenced by the need to take a step forward in his career. And so, Kisrabló Pub was born.
Well, not so much born as re-imagined. The Kisrabló name (trans. Little Robber) has hung over the door of Zenta Utca 3 since 1925. In the 1990s, it was one of the most popular upmarket restaurants in the city, with a very good reputation. It closed for a time from 2015 to 2017, having suffered from a steady decline in service, something Zoli and his crew are serious about rebuilding.
Unlike Jack Doyle’s, Beckett’s, and The Caledonia, Kisrabló is on the Buda side of the city, in a part of town that has plenty by way of cafés and restaurants, but not so much in the line of proper pubs. But it’s accessible from just about anywhere by the M4 metro, trams 4, 6, 19, 41, 47, 48, 49, 56, and buses 133e and 7.
The only light shining on Zenta utca, the two-storey pub has capacity for about 170 people. The main floor alone has seats for 110, with six TVs screens, and a sound system. It’s a haven for sports enthusiasts who can watch pretty much any sport that’s being screened. Zoli has made this a priority, focusing on the English Premier League and rugby. As host to OLSCH, the Official Liverpool Supporters Club in Hungary, every Liverpool game in the season gets airtime. [And if you’re not into watching TV, the pool table and the dart board are free to use, while the csocsó (table football) works with a 100ft coin.]
The lower-floor event room can host 60 customers with a separate bar and its own staff. Wired with a standalone sound system and TV, it’s calling out to tasting events, parties, family events, company nights out, and live music gigs. On 2 March, the Irish Hungarian Business Circle will host its monthly First Friday event there, with special guests from the Italian Chamber and music by the fab Green Spirit. This is the first of many such events Zoli plans for Kisrabló, events that embody the essence of what the pub is about – inclusiveness.
And while the whole pub experience is about far more than simply drinking, the drinks offer is quite extensive, including 10 draft beers with English ales and Irish stouts, Hungarian handcrafted beers, and Czech lager, too. It also boasts more than 30 different bottled beers and about 10 different ciders. And, I hear, the plan is also to focus on quality spirits, building the offer week by week.
I’ve been a few times when I’m in town and there’s a rugby match on. Zoli and Szandra always have a welcome and a word for me. But last week, Beni, one of the bartenders, called me by name. And something clicked. I felt at home. Cheers, lads! Here’s to many good years ahead.
First published in the Budapest Times 9 February 2018