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Bankers cut their losses after hours

Banker Beat Gabathuler takes time to savour a Cuban cigar at the Rex Bar

(swissinfo.ch)

Despite the gloom and doom on the financial markets, Swiss bankers are still living the high life after the close of trading.

swissinfo's Dale Bechtel prowled around Zurich's traditional and trendy bars and discovered that traders, investors and asset managers are still savouring fine wines, whiskies and cigars.

"No banker wants to admit that they've got a problem - to say 'listen, I'm not earning as much as two years ago' - so they're pretending they can spend as much as before," confesses Beat Gabathuler.

Gabathuler is a connoisseur of fine wines, single malt whiskies and Cuban cigars and - last and certainly not least - a 16-year veteran of the city's banking wars and currently a senior manager at Zurich Cantonal Bank.

He is to be my guide on a tour of the bars favoured by the city's elite - its bankers. A strong constitution and deep pockets were to prove essential.

Our itinerary includes the renovated jazz and whisky bar, "Widder", the de rigueur "Kaufleuten", the art deco "Carlton", the smoky "Rex", the convivial "Caveau" and the lofty "Jules Verne" wine bar.

While savouring a dram of single malt whisky at the Widder, Gabathuler tells me that before the economic bubble burst, it wasn't unusual for investment bankers at some of the big Swiss banks to be granted allowances upwards of SFr30,000 ($20,500) a year for meals and entertainment expenses.

High rollers

As far as appearances at the Widder are concerned, the good times are still rolling and the high-priced whisky flowing.

The barman confides with a smile, while taking down a bottle whose contents sell for as much as SFr350 a shot, that the bankers are still spending big.

The air around us hums with discussions about investment strategy, luxury watches and the latest football match.

However, Gabathuler believes bankers have let their egos get in the way of reason, and he says if the economy doesn't turn around soon, they will be forced to change their spending habits.

From the Widder, we cross Bahnhofstrasse and head for the Carlton. It is also popular with Zurich's financial and in-crowd - but not on this particular night.

So we try the Caveau across the road - a wine bar and restaurant run by the Swiss restaurant and hotel group, Mövenpick. It's less pretentious than the Widder or Carlton, and so crowded we can't even find a place to sit.

Bankers' mile

We wander along the Swiss bankers' mile - around Bahnhofstrasse - where real estate rose in price a few years ago to an astronomical SFr100,000 a square metre.

And not surprisingly, much of the real estate in this jewel in Switzerland's property crown is owned by Switzerland's banks, led by the financial giant, UBS.

UBS had the funds to carry out costly and stylish renovations to the buildings housing many of these trendy bars and restaurants.

And in order to pay the rent, the bars stock premium beverages and luxury items with high profit margins. That's language bankers understand.

We soon find ourselves leaning back in leather armchairs in the dark-panelled Rex Bar.

Port and cigars

We order a 20-year-old port to accompany our Hoyo de Monterrey Cuban cigars, which is why we came to the Rex in the first place.

Judging by the smoky haze, we are not alone in lighting up.

An American tycoon lords it over an entourage of young male and female followers at a corner table, while at the bar a couple of grey-haired British businessmen are decidedly more discreet in their conversation.

Next stop is the legendary Kaufleuten, which lies only a few minutes away but is a world apart.

Even though it boasts an exclusive club and restaurant where Madonna dines when she's in town, we stumble into its unpretentious bar.

Its table tops are worn, its wooden chairs rickety and there are no bar stools. But Gabathuler is as much in his element here with a cheap beer as he is sipping a port at the Rex.

Kaufleuten

He says he likes the variety of people who hang out here, and, of course, the Kaufleuten's reputation.

"Even foreigners ask for the Kaufleuten. Once I met a Russian; she asked me about the Kaufleuten - coming from Moscow! I couldn't believe it," he says.

"I even saw the chairman of the international swaps and derivatives association here who's also a managing director of an American investment bank. He came with some of his people."

Later we survey Zurich and its banks from the Jules Verne wine bar located ten storeys above Bahnhofstrasse in the Observatory Tower.

The Jules Verne affords a panoramic view of the city but besides the spots lighting up the trinity of Zurich's famous churches, the vista is not very impressive.

Few buildings are tall enough to cut a silhouette against the night sky and there are nearly no neon signs or hoardings to light up the city.

You would have no idea this city is run by bankers. Unless of course, you sit at the bar.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

Most of the bars listed in the article are within a stone's throw of the Swiss banks headquartered around Paradeplatz and Bahnhofstrasse.

The cosy Widder Bar, part of the recently-renovated Widder Hotel on Rennweg, offers 170 different types of single malt whisky. You come for the whisky or the live jazz.

The Carlton Restaurant and Bar transforms itself on Tuesday evenings for its "five after six" event. This is designed for the after-work crowd who can't wait until the weekend to see and be seen. The furniture is removed and DJs pump up the volume.

The Caveau, which belongs to the Mövenpick chain of hotels and restaurants, prides itself on its excellent selection of wines from around the world. This place is as popular at lunch as it is after work.

The Rex Bar has transformed itself from a strip club into a high-class establishment with the accent on fine cigars and spirits - and excellent service.

Entering the Observatory Tower to get to the Jules Verne wine bar, customers first have to walk through Brasserie Lipps to get to the lift. The peckish aren't likely to get much further - the steaming seafood is mouth-watering.

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