The rise of Szimpla and the ruin pub in Budapest

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Ruin pubs are what makes Budapest’s party scene so unique. Today it’s hard to go more than a few metres through the cities’ chic Jewish quarter without passing by one. But less than 15 years ago the whole area was a wasteland avoided by just about everyone, a victim of post-war abandonment.

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Bringing life to Budapest’s Jewish Quarter

As dilapidated and unloved as the area was, it did, however, attract the attention of entrepreneur Ábel Zsendovits. Keen to leave his mark on the city and its nightlife, he created Szimpla, a bar that would go on to breathe new life into the neighborhood, spark a new trend, and eventually be named the 3rd best bar in the world by Lonely Planet.

We thought we’d take a look at the history of Szimpla.

A simple start

The first Szimpla bar opened on Kertesz utca - and still exists as Szimpla Kávézó - followed by another one on Kiraly utca that had the added benefit of an outdoor courtyard where people could sit and drink. Then, in 2004, Zsendovits took a chance on a soon to be demolished building on Kazinczy utca, moving Szimpla to the home it’s stood in ever since.

In an interview with Electronic Beats, Zsendovits talks about Szimpla starting life as a small experiment in changing the nightlife scene in Budapest and giving young people a place they could drink affordably and enjoy themselves. “Before Szimpla, you’d just drink in an average pub, but after we set up the bar, drinking became socially connected to a location, a place with real music that soon became recognized as a meeting point for the city’s hipsters” he says.

The junkyard decor, for which ruin pubs are best known, was both a necessity given the surroundings they were working with as well as a deliberate choice, “When we moved to the premises in 2003 the building was already partly demolished... We then started to rebuild the rear part of the building by setting up a plastic tent in the debris, renovating all the remainders of the original structure until we eventually completed the roof. We furnished all the different parts of the complex with liveliness and with functionality” says Zsendovits.

Ups and downs as Szimpla grows popular with locals

It wasn’t long before people took notice. According to Zsendovits in an interview with Reuters, “Five hundred to 600 people found it within an hour after we opened. From then on we had a full house every night”.

In the days before Facebook, Szimpla relied on word of mouth to find it’s crowd. Speaking to Daily News Hungary, Zsendovits commented, “Oh, those were the golden years, without [sic] the Facebook, people talked to each other… We were just four young guys ... We did not have any energy to engage in modern advertising techniques. We believed in ourselves, our friends and in word of mouth. And it worked”.

But not all the new-found attention was good, and the burgeoning bar scene around Kazinczy utca eventually caught the attention of local officials. For years neighborhood residents complained about excessive noise and litter and in 2012 a new law almost saw all bars in the area forced to close at midnight, a move that would have effectively shut down most bars in the area overnight. Luckily the new rules were never enforced.

The changing face of Szimpla as a tourist destination

As it’s developed it’s become clear that Szimpla sees itself as more than just a place to drink. There’s now a design shop and regular concerts. It’s also become a place for local artists to find a receptive audience. Art at Szimpla is rotated just about as regularly as the furniture is and this gives people a reason to come back.

One of the major complaints, however, is the lack of locals. Szimpla has firmly rooted itself to most tourists itineraries, at the expense of entertaining locals, and the price of drinks there - close to double what you might pay in a ‘locals’ establishment - reflects this. In an effort to cash in on its global fame, Szimpla now has an onsite gift shop and even a lady that goes around selling carrots to hungry revellers.

Gentrification of Budapest’s downtown

Finally, it’s also important to look at the effect that Szimpla, and the wave of ruin pubs that followed in footsteps, have had on the neighborhood they once brought new life to. The Jewish quarter is now considered one of the most desirable parts of Budapest to live in and rising rent prices have pushed out many people that called it their home for years.

Locals and bar owners have also struggled against the inevitable rush of developers to the area. Between 2002 and 2006 old buildings were torn down on mass, replaced with apartment blocks and offices. Trendy spots like Gozsdu Udvar, a magnet for tourists, have also flourished.

In 2004 ÓVÁS (Hungarian for ‘protest’) formed as a civic organisation to protect the identity of the area. Speaking to City Lab, Alexandra Kowalski, a local resident and assistant professor at the Central European University said, “In the early 2000s, there was a clear antagonism between the developers and the ruin pubs. Ruin pubs were gaining traction as … a sort of hallmark of the neighborhood, while the developers were planning to build ... tall buildings and completely change the look of the area".