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Diners in Zurich eat among the masters

The Kronenhalle bar is a hot spot for creative types. Kronenhalle

The dishes served at Zurich's Kronenhalle restaurant are decorative if not necessarily works of art. The real masterpieces hang on the walls.

From Matisse to Picasso, Dégas and Chagall, diners have the rare treat of sitting beneath original works by the masters. On this day, swissinfo’s Joanne Shields had the pleasure.

On a bustling Friday afternoon, I am joined for lunch at the Kronenhalle by Kristof Becker, the director of the Kunsthaus, Zurich’s modern art museum.

He talks me through the range of styles displayed on the wooden walls and how the works of art came to be hung in a restaurant and not a gallery.

Preserving the past

Gustav Zumsteg is the current proprietor of the Kronenhalle. In 1920 his mother, Hulda, bought the restaurant which had been going since the 1800s.

The dining room has been kept, through extensive restoration, in the original late 1800s style.

Chandeliers drip down from the high ceilings, dark wooden panels cover the lower half of the walls, and ornate brass detail is dotted about the room.

Influential friends

As Becker explains, Zumsteg is more than an art collector. He actually knew many of the artists personally.

As a young man, Zumsteg studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he met Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, and cultivated lifelong friendships with them.

According to Zumsteg’s niece, Vreni Gerhardt, the Kronenhalle underwent a transformation under the family’s ownership.

“The Kronenhalle used to be an everyday restaurant for workers,” Gerhardt told me. “Then they transformed it, slowly, into a very good restaurant.”

The biggest changes began when Zumsteg returned from Paris and began to get involved in the running of the place. He saw the Kronenhalle’s potential, and began to bring his artist friends to eat there.

Come and be seen

The presence of artists soon began to turn the establishment into a meeting place for the cultural elite of the time.

And, Becker tells me, the Kronenhalle is still the place to be seen for creative types – those with money, that is.

“It’s not a cheap place to eat, so it’s not affordable for many artists,” Becker says.

“But, if you are a struggling artist, you should come here, because you might meet somebody of importance to your future life.”

Over the years the Kronenhalle’s reputation – and fine cuisine – has also drawn in foreign leaders, including Spanish and Persian royalty.

Designer bar

The Kronenhalle’s influential connections are most obvious in the bar, which was once a barber’s shop.

Zumsteg designed the bar himself, with the help of Zurich architects and artist Diego Giacometti, brother of the famous sculptor, Alberto Giacometti.

It has a more modern style than the dining room, with green leather sofas and dark wooden panelled walls and ceiling.

Large bronze table legs and lamp stands made by Giacometti stand prominent in various parts of the room and the art hanging on the walls is mainly by French painters from the 1950s.

“It looks like the interior of a ship, also a casino, and at the same time a bar in a very good hotel,” Becker says. “And to the people of Zurich, it is the mother of all bars.”

Tight security

Although I can see no sign of wires or alarms, Gerhardt assures me the Kronenhalle has tight security in place.

Even so, several paintings have been stolen. One of the thieves was a regular, who tried to sell on a Matisse original for a fraction of its worth.

He was caught and went to jail, but tried to return to the bar following his release. Gerhardt said he was swiftly shown the door.

But despite the occasional opportunistic visitors, the Kronenhalle prides itself on maintaining an elite clientele who regularly return to appreciate the art in its luxurious setting.

swissinfo, Joanne Shields

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR