Orban’s New Dilemma: a Belle-Epoque Eatery’s Almost-Free Lunch

(Bloomberg) -- A restaurant founded during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is engulfed in a dispute over Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s governing style, which protesters have taken to the streets to denounce as authoritarian.

Criticized by opponents for lavishing benefits on a cadre of loyalist elite, Orban capped almost a decade of centralizing power this year by moving his office to a former monastery at Buda Castle overlooking the Danube. Gundel, a restaurant founded in 1894 on the edge of the city’s answer to Central Park, won the catering contract for the site’s new cafeteria.

With entrees such as Red Deer Loin Fillet "Waldorf" and Tournedos Rossini priced at $20-$60, the restaurant is still synonymous with luxury for those who remember it as a rare bright spot during the drab years of communism, even though it’s now outshined by new names in a thriving food scene.

Nevertheless, news that staff at Orban’s new office can eat a two-course lunch for about $3 ignited outrage in a country where the average worker pays more. The social media pages of Gundel, whose founder’s cookbook is considered a classic of Hungarian cuisine, were inundated with complaints and negative reviews.

Helicopter Delivery

"I’d hereby like to order the weekly menu," a user with the name of Ferenc Szolnoki posted on Gundel’s Facebook page. "Helicopter delivery is fine because I am a pensioner."

Orban’s office said the price difference was because the self-service cafeteria won’t offer the same meals as the flagship venue. It also argued that the prices are similar to the parliamentary canteen where opposition lawmakers complaining about the Gundel contract dine too, atv.hu news website reported. Media controlled by the government took pains to emphasize the "puritanical" nature of the meals.

That’s unlikely to appease Orban’s critics, who have accused the government of lavishing loyal party members with rewards ranging from lucrative tobacconist licenses to public procurement contracts for companies tied to friends and family members. He has also frequently appealed to companies to contribute to a fund that gives subsidies to the favorite sports teams of him and his ministers.

More than 10,000 people took to the streets last weekend demanding that the government repeal a new law allowing companies to ask them to work as much as six days a week. The issue has galvanized opposition parties who say Orban is destroying Hungary’s democracy.

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