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Toronto's Country Style Hungarian reopens doors with traditional menu intact

Katalin Koltai and her daughter, also named Katalin, recently reopened the family-owned Country Style Hungarian restaurant.

When Country Style Hungarian Restaurant, a venerable schnitzel house on Bloor Street West, shut its doors earlier this summer, rumours quickly began circulating in Toronto's food-o-sphere about its demise.

Which wouldn't have been such a surprise. After all, the 54-year-old Annex institution is the last survivor in a stretch once known as the goulash archipelago, with eateries such as The Coffee Mill, Marika's, Csarda House, The Blue Danube Room, Continental and Korona. The owners have mostly retired or died.

This particular closure turned out to be not only temporary, but a kind of reboot. The interlude allowed owner Katalin Koltai to do a stem-to-stern renovation, the first real overhaul since 1975. The restaurant reopened late last month.

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Still, as Ms. Koltai said after the lunch-hour rush one day this week, all the speculation was a concern: "We were afraid we would not be getting people back."

But the city's greatly relieved schnitzel aficionados have returned, in droves.

The facelift cost her more than $150,000 and is meant to secure the business so that Ms. Koltai's daughter, also named Katalin, can take over when she retires. The work included new kitchen equipment, counters, chairs, bathroom fixtures and even a digital cash register to replace the restaurant's antiquarian push-button version.

Most conspicuously, the bulky refrigerated dessert display case that dominated the front has been replaced with large and inviting picture windows, as well as a couple of street-facing tables.

What hasn't been updated: the kitschy Communist-era tourist posters of Budapest that adorn the walls, and, crucially, the menu, which features Magyar staples such as cabbage rolls, goulash, palascinta and the "wooden plate" – a veritable steppe of fried meat, potatoes and pickled beets.

"We didn't change anything," Ms. Koltai stressed, noting that Country Style Hungarian serves about 400 Frisbee-sized schnitzels each week, as well as 20 wooden plate specials on a typical weekend. "The food is the same as 30 or 40 years ago."

The restaurant dates back to the early 1960s, a time when many of the thousands of Hungarian refugees who came to Toronto after the 1956 revolution were living in and around the Annex. The second owner, Alex Pataki, expanded the eating area, which included a row of counter stools at the front that were habitually occupied by his most regular customers.

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Ms. Koltai, who came to Canada in 1971, worked in a bank for five years before opening the Hungarian Rhapsody in Yorkville. She sold it a few years later and went to work for Mr. Pataki in 1981. After leaving for a brief period in the mid-1980s, she returned in the late 1990s and bought the business outright in 2001.

Country Style Hungarian, which has sustained generations of hungry university students, has also been a favourite of visiting food writers looking for Toronto's authentic ethnic fare. "Everything comes in two portions," a Chicago Sun-Times scribe noted admiringly in 1991. "Large, and very large."

Toronto's restaurant scene, of course, has changed utterly since Country's Style Hungarian's early years, when its menu was considered exotic but also emblematic of the city's emerging multiculturalism.

Ms. Koltai, however, has no intention of modernizing the menu or incorporating whatever might pass as nouvelle Hungarian cuisine. Asked where she fits into the city's food scene, Ms. Koltai offered a shrug and a smile. "I have no idea," she replied. "Some people say the homemade cooking. We start to work early in the morning every day to put fresh food on the table for our customers."

John Lorinc, a freelance writer, has been eating at Country Style Hungarian for over 40 years.

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