BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) _ The Gundel restaurant was renowned before World War II, with such regulars as Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Mann, but decades of state ownership reduced it to a sad shadow of its former elegance.

Now, a $15 million facelift by two wealthy Americans has rescued Gundel's from communist drabness, restoring its polished wood, gilt inlays and soft, green art nouveau lighting.

''What you see here today is a dream I've had most of my adult life,'' said Ronald Lauder, heir to the U.S. cosmetics empire.

Lauder's partner is Hungarian-born George Lang, a violinist who found work in restaurant kitchens when he arrived in New York in 1946 and worked his way up to manager of the chic Four Seasons. He now owns the popular Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan.

''I want to bring back old dishes,'' Lang told a news conference, and launched into a mouthwatering description of the possibilities.

They include an 18th-century recipe for sauerkraut baked with catfish and fish sausage, variations on Hungarian gooseliver, and hand-pulled strudel.

He pledged that the restaurant's mission will be to ''give people what they want; to make them feel wanted, loved.''

Those who have money, that is. At about $37 per meal, Gundel's is out of reach for most Hungarians. The many Western visitors to Budapest can afford it, however, as can the growing number of prosperous Hungarians.

Karoly Gundel opened his restaurant in the city park on the Pest side of the Danube in 1910, and it became a choice of the rich and famous.

Gundel's was nationalized by the communists in 1949 and soon faded, its plaster crumbling and furniture worn, but continued to attract notables such as Sir Georg Solti and Luciano Pavarotti.

''I was about 15 years old when I first visited Gundel,'' Lauder said in an interview. ''I had first heard about it from my grandparents.

''Over the years, I came back to Gundel many times, hoping it'd be like the way my grandparents described it. I always believed one day it would be the way it was.''

Lang met Lauder in a New York restaurant one day and sketched on a napkin his ideas for restoring Gundel's.

They formed a partnership in 1990, bought the restaurant from the Hungarian govenrment for $8 million and invested another $7 million to gut and rebuild it. Lang has bought a 58-acre vineyard in Hungary's famous Tokaj region to stock the wine cellar.

The Gundel staff of 150 was retained, but given intensive courses in English, German and the finer points of how to make every client feel special.

Although it seats 1,200, including the spacious, exquisitely planned gardens, the restaurant conveys an intimate atmosphere. Paintings by Munkacsy, Rippl-Ronai and other Hungarian masters hang in the main dining room.

''We are absolutely thrilled with the way it has turned out,'' said Steve Szablya of Seattle, Wash., a descendant of the Gundel family.