Having enjoyed meals at over 160 vegan and vegetarian restaurants around the world during the past year, I figured we had seen it all (or almost all!), but Hiltl in Zurich’s city center offers a completely different model, one that has been going strong for 116 years. Yes, 116 years! In fact, Hiltl, founded in 1898, is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world, based on the Guinness Book of World Records.
I was aware of Hiltl’s long history prior to our arrival in Zurich and therefore expected to find an old, traditional vegetarian restaurant serving the standard go-to vegetarian and vegan dishes. Instead, we found ourselves in a massive restaurant with a modern decor, a formal dining area, a casual café (by day), and a classy bar and nightclub (by night). The outdoor patio was bustling with diners and most of the tables inside were already reserved for the evening. We lucked out and landed a table upstairs, overlooking the main floor of the restaurant below.
The family-owned vegetarian institution extends across the entire block and even has a specialty food store around the corner from the main entrance. The primary draw for meat eaters and non-meat eaters alike is the massive vegetarian buffet with over 500 rotating dishes that extends across the main floor. Even though Hiltl offers an à la carte menu, we learned from our server that the majority of customers come for the buffet.
Buffets can be hit or miss, as the concept of a buffet inherently implies that food is sitting out for extended periods, losing its freshness with the passing of time. Fortunately, due to Hiltl’s popularity, the multi-floor kitchen, which is glassed in and visible for diners to admire, is constantly churning out fresh dishes, replenishing the buffet as quickly as possible to keep up with the crowds of customers flocking to and from the 100+ hot and cold dishes. I saw numerous staff running out to the buffet, checking on the status of a particular dish and entering something into a handheld device. Minutes later, another staff member would come running out with a fresh replacement. This place runs like a well-oiled machine.
We enjoyed both dinner and lunch at Hiltl. While sitting in the more formal dining room means that you’ll pay a slightly higher price for the buffet, there is full table service along with an à la carte menu. Additionally, you can weigh your food with these handy-dandy scales, take your receipt, and start eating right away while your food is still hot. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more casual setting, the café/bar is a great option. For the café/bar seating, the buffet is a little less expensive compared to the “dining room” price, but you will have to wait in line to pay for your food.
I’ll be completely honest, the actual buffet dishes aren’t exceptionally creative or unique, but the ingredients are incredibly fresh, the offerings are numerous, and the ambiance is hard to beat. You can easily create a healthy plate of delicious plant-based salads, bean dips, hot veggie stews and mini quinoa burgers (pictured below). Of course there are also a handful of less-than-healthy options like deep fried pakoras, veggie fritters, and onion rings.
Hiltl is an all-day operation, starting with breakfast at 6:00am. The space transforms into a trendy bar in the evening and then into a lively nightclub on the weekends. Witnessing this incredibly efficient operation in action made me wonder if such a food establishment would have a similar following elsewhere around the world. We have dined at successful vegetarian food restaurants in cities like Buenos Aires, Aukland, and Berlin, but this is the first time that we have experienced an absolutely bustling (and massive!) vegetarian restaurant, attracting both omnivores and herbivores. I was pretty surprised to look around at the neighboring traditional Swiss, Italian, and French restaurants and see that their tables were empty even during peak dining hours. If I lived in Zurich, I would probably find myself at Hiltl at least once, maybe even twice a week!