Hiltl: Europe's first vegetarian restaurant

(Hiltl restaurant)

Zurich’s Hiltl restaurant has come a long way since it opened its doors as the Vegetarians’ Home and Teetotallers Café in 1898.

This content was published on March 8, 2004 - 19:41

The entrepreneur who started the restaurant dynasty, Ambrosius Hiltl, would not recognise most of the oriental dishes dominating the menu today, but his innovative spirit is alive and well.

“My great-grandfather, the founder, was sick when he was about 20 years old with arthritis,” explains Rolf Hiltl, the fourth generation of Hiltls to run the establishment.

“His doctor told him to adopt a vegetarian diet and he tried it out for three months and got healthy again so he became a vegetarian.”

He also became a regular customer at the vegetarian restaurant which had opened a couple of years earlier, choosing from the menu such items as potato or radish salad, spinach, butter rice and mashed potato, accompanied by a glass of apple juice or lemonade.

However, the restaurant was not a commercial success and the managers eventually convinced Hiltl to take over the money-losing venture in 1903.

Renovations and expansions

Rolf Hiltl says the business grew slowly but steadily, and by 1931 had undergone several renovations and expansions, and boasted Zurich’s first electrical kitchen.

A milestone was reached in the 1950s when Hiltl’s grandmother returned from a trip to India with recipes for Indian dishes.

“It was very revolutionary,” says Hiltl. “She brought spices you couldn’t buy in Zurich. But my uncle who was the cook at the time said he wouldn’t make any ‘foreign stuff’ in his kitchen.”

However, his grandmother persisted, and Hiltl soon became known for its Indian cuisine.

Trendy traditional

Today, Hiltl says traditional Swiss dishes are becoming popular again.

A couple of items still on the menu like the “farmer’s plate” were first introduced in the 1930s.

It is a wholesome combination of carrot salad, lettuce, cress and tomatoes served with boiled potatoes, quark, Swiss Tilsiter cheese and butter.

“Right now, people want to go back to the basics,” Hiltl says. “That’s what we feel. The oriental stuff is trendy, but sometimes people want something they remember from childhood.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zurich

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