Notes from Haus Hiltl

Haus Hiltl  

Ever the sceptic when it comes to anything remotely ‘record-worthy’ within the realm of one of my life’s greatest passions — food ( and my callously carnivorous proclivity) — I really wasn’t looking forward to my very first meal in Zurich, Switzerland. My friend and local Indian culinary guru, Ity Tiwari had all but dragooned me into a pure vegetarian lunch at Haus Hiltl.

A veritable Zurich institution, Hiltl, as it is better known, is believed to be the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.Founded in 1898, the stately-looking restaurant, perched on the city’s crowded Sihlstrasse Street, has a shiny plaque from the people at the Guinness World Records to corroborate this claim.

Coming from India, it seemed rather strange to see such a title bestowed on a restaurant in Switzerland of all places. For here, no meal is complete without a serving of a hunk of meat with some potatoes and cheese on the side. But some quick research confirmed this was very much the case, and so I soldiered on, tucking into my yummy cumin-dusted roasted cauliflower soup and saffron gnocchi, while a few interesting morsels of Hiltl trivia served as accompaniments.

Born of necessity

Founded by a family of German immigrants, and originally called Vegetaria, the restaurant was a boarding house for vegetarians with a small attached café. But because the concept of vegetarianism was virtually non-existent in Switzerland at that time, the establishment didn’t have much success.

In 1904, a Bavarian tailor named Ambrosius Hiltl, who was rendered jobless due to rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed an all-vegetarian diet by his doctor, took over the restaurant and renamed it Haus Hiltl. Not only was Ambrosius cured of his affliction, his restaurant was looked upon as a novelty to which scores of locals flocked, making it an overnight success. Something that it enjoys to this day thanks to its famous pay-by-weight vegetarian buffet that’s a rage with Zurich’s hipster brigade.

And today, as an annexe, it even has the world’s first ‘vegi butcher’ called the Hiltl Shop. where one can stock up on all-vegan mock meats like seitan and tempeh — the former made from wheat gluten, the latter from fermented soybeans — and wacky ‘noix gras’ hazelnut stand in for the controversial goose liver foie gras.

Talk of India and its rich vegetarian influence on Hiltl seemed inevitable as I was taken on a short, post-prandial tour of the gargantuan, three-levelled restaurant and shown the photograph of India’s late former Prime Minister Morarji Desai relishing a plate of pakoras here. It was Ambrosius’s daughter-in-law Margrith, who, in the 1950s, introduced recipes and elements from Indian cuisine into Hiltl’s repertoire.

Indian guests were the first to respond with enthusiasm, but over time they were joined by more and more locals. The art of Indian cooking remains a major element of Hiltl with their channa masala being the top seller and a personal favourite of Rolf Hiltl, the fourth generation Hiltl, who runs the restaurant today. “I have an affinity for Indian cuisine,” says the Hiltl great-grandson who caused quite a stir in 1993 when he introduced alcohol to the menu for the first time. But the Hiltl’s adherence to vegetarianism is so strong that it is rumoured to deny entry to those wearing fur. ’Nuff said!

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 2:58:47 AM |

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