If I was running BBC4, I'd commission a documentary about The Gay Hussar. It's not just that it has an interesting history in its own right, being London's first Hungarian restaurant; it would also enable you to chart the rise and fall of the liberal intelligentsia. Ever since it opened in 1953, the fate of The Gay Hussar has been intimately bound up with that of Britain's intellectual class, peaking in 1980 with the election of the late Michael Foot as Labour leader.
The restaurant was opened by the son of a ship owner, Victor Sassie, who was sent to Budapest in 1932 by the British Hotel and Restaurant Association; after training under Károly Gundel, a culinary legend in Hungary, he returned to London to open his first restaurant, Budapest on Dean Street. During the war, he served with British intelligence in Hungary, then opened a second Budapest on Frith Street before finally unveiling The Gay Hussar.
It immediately attracted the patronage of several publishers in the area, including Jonathan Cape and Rupert Hart-Davis, and it wasn't long before it could name TS Elliot among its regulars. However, it was the restaurant's discovery by the firebrand Welsh MP Aneurin Bevan that led to it becoming the unofficial headquarters of Labour's intellectual left. Several Party coups were plotted here. Fixtures at these occasions included Tom Driberg, Ian Mikardo and Barbara Castle, all Labour MPs. They were the high-living, seditious branch of the Party – not so much champagne socialists as Tokay Trotskyists.
The Gay Hussar's fame peaked in the early 1970s when The Daily Mail got hold of a bill itemising just how lavishly a Soviet delegation had been entertained by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It stuck it on the front page, causing widespread panic among Labour MPs, who became convinced there must be an enemy spy on the restaurant's staff. However, they soon returned and it wasn't long before they were plotting Foot's ascension as leader of the Opposition.
Walking through its doors today, it quickly becomes clear that its best years are behind it. I visit on a Friday night, with my wife Caroline, and Charlie, a teacher friend, and there are precious few intellectuals in evidence. On the contrary, the table next to ours is occupied by a couple of elderly American tourists and beyond them is a table of drunken office workers, some wearing party hats. The shelves are still stacked with the biographies of left-wing demigods, but their authors are long gone.
I start with the restaurant's famous chilled wild-cherry soup, while Caroline opts for the fried mushrooms with tartare sauce and Charlie has the fresh asparagus and bacon salad. They are both reasonably happy – the mushrooms are a little on the greasy side – but my soup is disappointing. It tastes like cherry-flavoured Actimel, the probiotic drinking yoghurt. I've got nothing against Actimel, but at £4.50 a bowl I was expecting something a little more special.
For mains, I have the Dutch calves' liver sautéed with onions, bacon and paprika, while Caroline goes for the vegetarian goulash with galuska and Charlie has pork medallions with bacon, onions, potatoes and paprika. Again, they've no complaints, but my dish is a shocker. Instead of the delicately fried liver I'm expecting, I receive a pile of dark brown slop. It has the texture of mashed potatoes.
We think about ordering pudding, but the descriptions are so unappetising – sweet cheese pancakes, anyone? – we ask for the bill. The total of £96.58, including a £29.95 bottle of Chablis, seems a little steep for Eastern European comfort food.
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a thrusting young journalist, I used to lunch at The Gay Hussar quite often and I remember the food being a lot better than this. What has happened? I suspect the gradual falling away of the restaurant's left wing clientele is to blame. As a general rule, the more indiscriminate a person is in their commitment to socialist dogma, the more discerning their palate.
No doubt The Gay Hussar will soldier on. And who knows, if Labour loses the election, perhaps Ed Balls and his cronies will meet here to mastermind his leadership campaign. The ghosts of 1,000 left-wing conspirators will look on approvingly.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
The Gay Hussar 2 Greek Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 0973 Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. About £95 for dinner for three, including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.com
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