Budapest restaurant scam – Let’s be careful out there

Hey, this is just a friendly public service announcement for you travelers to stay cognizant of some of the older scams that are still alive and well all over Europe.

A friend of mine was just burned by the old menu switcheroo scam in Budapest last week, an art honed to perfection in my own love-to-hate Bucharest, and ended up being intimated by several goons into coughing up the equivalent of plane-fare for dinner and a few drinks.  This was a very experienced traveler, but exhaustion and a little too much drinking stripped away his defenses (as well as a few very attractive accomplices employed by the restaurant).  Alone and drunk should be avoided no matter where you are and what you’re doing, but even mostly sober groups can fall prey to this particular plot.

Essentially, you’re shown one menu when you sit down to dinner and are given another menu, with grossly inflated prices when the bill is delivered and you make a stink about the total. In some cases, no menu switch is made, but the menu fails to indicate that you are charged per 100 grams of whatever meat you’re ordering and you belatedly learn that 400 grams is the unspoken minimum.

Another wrinkle is when you order a bottle of wine and they uncork and pour the wine before apologetically telling you that the $8, 2002 bottle you ordered was out of stock, so they brought the same wine, but a different year, maybe 1989, which ‘lo and behold costs $120. They didn’t think you’d mind.

The bar version is the simplest. With the drink menu posted somewhere inconspicuous (say a drawer in the back office), the carefree traveler(s) orders a few rounds, usually buying for the new lady friends that they “spontaneously” met on the street and then it’s revealed that each Screwdriver costs something ludicrous like 200 euro.

Overly helpful taxi drivers and agreeably amorous women are usually the bait that brings guy(s) to these places, since crooked restaurants and clubs typically don’t buy ad space in the local weekly or get reviewed in tourist brochures.  Be wary of this kind of “assistance” no matter the source.  Persistent street hawkers are also to be avoided.  I’ve heard accounts of this type of thing happening in Bucharest, Budapest, Paris, Madrid, Warsaw and Athens, though it’s probably safe to assume that this element exists in just about any medium-sized city or better.  Sadly, it appears as if the local police are in on the scam and are no help.

Read the comments below for additional nuances in the set-up and execution of these scams, particularly the “Hungarian tourists with a map” and the telltale elevator-only entry/exit to the bar/restaurant.

The US Embassy in Budapest has posted a tourist advisory about this ongoing problem on their site.

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