The Budapest Billing Game

Paulo Rebêlo
The Budapest Sun – 14.fev.2007 – link original

You have just finished a delicious duck breast with croquette potatoes. You are feeling good after the nice wine, directly from the Hungarian countryside. The palacsinta pancake for dessert was marvelous. You are full, your belly feels happy (and bigger) and all you want on Earth right now is to pay the bill, go home and have a good night’s sleep. There’s only one problem: you can’t leave the bloody place.

No matter how hard you try to look for the waiter, or raise your hand once in a while, no one will see you. No one will notice that you are done and want to actually pay; they will make you wait until a good soul finally comes to see if you need anything. When they realize you just want to pay and leave, they will make you wait again. And then a bit more.

With so many good restaurants around Budapest, it is very easy to get in and taste various gulyás and páprikas dishes. Getting out, however, is always a matter of zen-buddhist patience.

After a while trying to make a waiter notice, you start to ask yourself if there was some sort of invisibility potion on that last croquette. After all, the waiter took your order so quickly and was very kind to explain what palacsinta means. The food did not take long to arrive and it was clearly well-made and cooked on time.

So, why on Earth do these creatures make you wait so long for a simple bill? It happens in restaurants of all social levels and also in bars. This kind of annoyance does not happen in Latin America for a very simple reason. If the bill takes too long to arrive at your table, people will just leave the place.

After all, paying the bill should not be considered a favor, but it seems to me that in many places around Budapest there are a lot of waiters who think they are doing a favor bringing us the bill. I want to pay. If you don’t want to receive the money, it’s fine by me. I can just leave and go home.

But Hungary is not Brazil and, apparently, the Hungarians are very patient people. Perhaps they are all zen-buddhists, who knows.


You finally get lucky and can now see the bill in front of your sleepy eyes. Cash or credit card, the waiter asks. You reply “card” because you don’t want to count out the hundreds of coins distributed around the six pockets of your clothing, or perhaps you need to save the money for buying a bottle of wine on your way home.

A few seconds later, the same fellow comes back and says “Sorry, Sir. We are only taking cash.” Holy mother of the devil! if you are only taking cash, why did you ask in the first place?

This sort of thing happens more often than people realize around here, they just don’t recall it because usually they are drunk.

The restaurant staff usually have two excuses. First, “the card machine is broken” or “offline,” leaving you thinking if you are the first person of the night who wants to pay with credit card. Second, they say the card machine was turned off because the restaurant is closing or something like that, keeping you wondering if they really work for a restaurant or for Greenpeace. Saving energy, you know.

In Brazil, one of the few laws that people really follow with pleasure is the consumer law related to credit cards. If a commercial spot accepts credit cards for payment, it should have the logo of the card company in a clearly visible area.

If the logo’s there, or if the place states it accepts credit card, it has to accept credit card no matter what. If the machine is offline or broken, that is not the consumer’s fault.

If the restaurateur knows that, for some reason, he cannot accept credit cards on a particular day/week/month, that fact should be stated to the consumer before any order has been taken or, even better, the waiter can just remove the logos and warn the clients they are only taking cash.

The reason is very simple. What happens if you don’t have enough cash to pay the bill? Are you going to call the police because you can’t afford a gulyás after eating it? And even if you have the money, but want to save it for the wine before heading back home, that’s your choice, not the restaurant’s.

But do not worry, my friend. In the end, there will always be a clever waiter who will solve the problem for you. He will point to the street and say: there’s an ATM machine right around the corner…