Think the World’s Oldest Veg Restaurant is in India? Think Again
Almost half the buffet at Haus Hitl – the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant – is Indian!
At 10.30 pm on a winter’s night it’s tough to find too many restaurants open in Zurich where thankfully fast food is considered infra dig. That’s how I first walked through the doors of Hiltl, just off Zurich’s main shopping street – Bahnhof Strasse – a couple of years ago. I had no clue about the restaurant’s rich history or the fact that it only served vegetarian cuisine.
I quickly discovered that the restaurant has a novel buffet by weight, a concept that never quite took off in India.
It’s probably why most diners kept staring at my plate.
Almost half the buffet was Indian and I was the only Indian at the restaurant, prompting diners to look at my plate for cues. I would have found it rude if someone did that to me in India but I must confess I enjoyed the attention.
It was then that I overheard one of the diners mention that Hiltl was the world’s oldest restaurant (since 1898). I laughed it off like any self-respecting Indian; surely there must be family-run eateries in India that are much older than Hiltl! But the joke was on me – Hiltl has a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records to prove its claim.
A Vegetarianism, Way Before It Became a Fad
Hiltl’s story began in 1898 when a few Germans founded Vegetarierheim AG. They soon found out that vegetarian food was a hard sell. In a few years, a German tailor Ambrosius Hiltl took over the reins and eventually bought the restaurant from the original promoters. He was a big believer in vegetarianism, inspired by the ideas of Maximillian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician and nutritionist who gave the world muesli. It was developed as a dish for patients in his hospital and now is a breakfast favourite across the world.
The restaurant passed on to the next generation of Hiltls in 1931; it also led to Hiltl’s unique Indian tryst way before Europe’s restaurants embraced Indian cuisine. Margarith Hiltl (Ambrosius’ daughter-in-law) visited Delhi in 1951 for the World Vegetarian Congress and went back to Zurich with Indian spices and recipes.
Almost ever since, the restaurant has become a hub for Indian travellers and locals seeking authentic Indian vegetarian cuisine and thankfully, it’s more than just the standard Naan and Paneer Butter Masala that you might find on Indian vegetarian menus in Europe. This list has included Indian celebrities like Morarji Desai and international A-listers like Paul McCartney and Zinedine Zidane.
It’s not just the guest list that is international – the restaurant’s staff is represented by over 50 countries reflected in the global mix on the restaurant’s buffet (and a la carte menu) that includes Thai, Italian, Lebanese and French cuisine. The restaurant’s culinary academy where locals and tourists can try their hand at vegan and vegetarian dishes, is quite popular too.
A week ago, I was back in Zurich to explore the city’s fascinating Old Town where some buildings date back almost 900 years. Many of these buildings have fascinating legends around them – like the house where Lenin lived and plotted the October revolution of 1917 or Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub where Dadaism, a famous non-conformist art movement was born in 1916. After trudging these streets all morning I ascended upon Lindenhof, the city’s favourite vantage point that offers panoramic views of Zurich.
This time I didn’t arrive in Hiltl by accident and waited for almost half an hour for a table at lunch.
Normally, you might need to hit a weighing machine after a heavy meal at a buffet but at Hiltl, you need to head to a weighing scale (to weigh your food) before you eat. The Saturday spread’s Indian selection covered serious ground across India – from a Black Dal with Jeera to Gulab Jamuns to South Indian style Masala Vada. The restaurant was a melting pot of locals and tourists cashing in on the last few days of the Swiss summer.
This time I didn’t find anyone staring at my plate for cues; I got a suggestion from my Swiss companion instead – masala coffee. A three tier hot beverage with chocolate, coffee, frothed milk and a generous sprinkling of garam masala on the top layer. No kidding! I can’t imagine the reactions back in Chennai or Bengaluru when they hear about a ‘tumbler’ of filter coffee with garam masala.
That’s the thing with the Indian selection at Hiltl – they have quite a few rabbits under the hat that can take Indians by surprise too.
Getting there and around: Swiss has daily flights from Mumbai and Delhi. Zurich’s tram system is very effective and you can also use Uber’s Uber Pop option with comparatively lower cab fares to move around town. The city is also the perfect base to explore the rest of Switzerland with its efficient train network.
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)
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