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BUDAPEST : If Paris is the world's most beautiful city, Budapest must rank a close second. From Castle Hill the view of the Danube is stunning.

March 26, 1989|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

BUDAPEST, Hungary — While Budapest burned, Laszlo Rasztoczkomo cranked out still another melody, a modern Nero, a Gypsy violinist.

Although Budapest really wasn't going up in smoke, Laszlo's music was igniting the souls of dozens of diners. Just as candles flamed in hundreds of restaurants and coffeehouses, from Gundel's near Heroes' Square to an intimate hideaway on Castle Hill. They flamed while a morose Laszlo Rasztoczkomo scratched out a second chorus of the theme from "Dr. Zhivago."

Lovers sighed. One woman wept openly. Afterward the entire restaurant applauded.

At last the violinist reached for a hanky. Wiping the perspiration from his collar, he settled wearily onto a bar stool.

Laszlo shook his bald head. "Pure sentimental kitsch. Rubbish!"

The old musician confessed that he was on a downer. "This is a city of great music, great composers. I'm a serious musician. I can play anything. But no one appreciates Franz Liszt or Chopin, Haydn, Beethoven. Hah, Beethoven, you know, composed his 'Moonlight Sonata' here in Hungary. Instead they ask for the theme from 'Dr. Zhivago.' "

He winces. "It's either 'Dr. Zhivago' or 'Fascination.' Especially with the Americans. They relate the violin to 'Dr. Zhivago' or 'Fascination.' " He shuddered.

If he played either melody one more time he would smash his violin to bits and turn to waiting tables again, which is what he did before he took up the violin.

Laszlo put down a straight shot of schnapps. After that he excused himself to stroll among the tables, playing once more for the guests.

To be sure, the theme from "Dr. Zhivago" doesn't exactly stir patriotic fervor in the hearts of Hungarians. What with the story being set in Russia, it's not everyone's favorite love song. Even though the Russians liberated Hungary at the end of World War II, the Hungarians can't forget that they returned to quash their revolution in 1956.

Still, tourists relate Gypsy music to "Dr. Zhivago," which is how it happens to be No. 1 on the coffeehouse hit parade. And what with more than 5,000 restaurants and coffeehouses in Budapest, it's next to impossible to avoid a few lines of "Dr. Zhivago," with "Fascination" thrown in for good measure.

Besides coffeehouses, Budapest is reputed to have more museums per capita than any other city in Eastern Europe. With 25 theaters and concert halls, the arts are dear to the hearts of nearly everyone. The problem is, Budapest draws as many tourists as there are inhabitants, which means fewer museum-goers and more fans of the coffeehouse fiddlers.

Germans, Austrians, Scandinavians, Britishers and Americans. They arrive by the bus load and the plane load, intent on studying Budapest's castles, guild halls and baroque town houses in addition to the coffeehouses.

Still, as dusk falls, they retire to the myriad restaurants and coffeehouses. Play, Gypsy, play. The music flows from every corner of the city. And with all due respect to the musicians, it is obvious that none were proteges of Yehudi Menuhin.

No, there are few Laszlo Rasztoczkomos, the chubby, balding violinist who has grown to loathe the theme from "Dr. Zhivago."

On the other hand, not all musicians suffer his displeasure. At the Restaurant Voros Potakocs, which faces the renowned Restaurant Spiros, Josef Sarkozi plays for a crowd composed primarily of Hungarians. He does folk music with the accompaniment of cymbalist Sutan Feller.

They're a pair. In white dinner jacket with black lapels, the rotund Sarkozi plays with heart, a true Gypsy violinist, eyes clamped shut, soul suffering while sawing away on an old Hungarian love song. Although there wasn't the stirring mood of "Dr. Zhivago," there was much applause.

For diners and others who've experienced the high cost of Western Europe, Budapest is a bargain. It's as if the calendar had been turned back 20 years.

At Restaurant Voros Potakocs one would be hard put to drop $10 during an entire evening, drinks included. The menu lists cabbage salad, Hungarian pork stew, grilled pike, pickled gherkins, smoked pork knuckles, ox tongue with horseradish and a sponge cake dripping in chocolate and smothered in cream.

If one is seeking a restaurant with atmosphere, Voros Potakocs is as Hungarian as a kettle of goulash. Vaulted ceilings rise above leaded windows that face amber street lamps. Harnesses grace the walls. Candles glow. The music is lively. And in the 200-year-old cellar, drinks are served from an ancient horse carriage.

Hollywood would be hard put to top it for pizazz.

While it is difficult to go for broke in Budapest, one restaurant, the Vadrosa, draws big spenders. The Vadrosa (Wild Rose) occupies an ancient villa where a couple of Gabor-type sisters provide both charm and memorable meals. Chandeliers shine on oak-paneled walls, and lace curtains flutter at the windows.

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