For vegetarians left hungry by the meat-laden menus of many European restaurants, Haus Hiltl’s 100-dish no-meat buffet is like water in the desert. A veritable cornucopia of global vegetarian flavors, from saffron gnocchi to palak paneer, the pay-by-weight buffet is only one part of what is now a Swiss vegetarian empire, which has its headquarters on Zurich’s Sihlstrasse. While the Guinness Book of World Records named Haus Hiltl the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, it’s more likely the oldest of its kind in the Western world. Opened by restauranteur Ambrosius Hiltl in 1898, the still family-owned establishment has been been patronized by notable vegetarians, including at least one prime minister, ever since.
Originally dubbing his eatery with the admittedly less sexy-sounding name Vegetarierheim and Abstinenzcafé (“vegetarian home and abstinence cafe”), Ambrosius Hiltl was a man ahead of his time. More than 100 years before the plant-based diet influencers of Instagram, he became a convert to the health benefits of avoiding meat when, at a doctor’s recommendation, he switched to an all-veg diet to help his rheumatism. When his rheumatism improved, Hiltl became a lifelong advocate of vegetarianism. At the time in Switzerland, the Sunday roast was considered the pinnacle of culinary accomplishment, and Hiltl’s vegetarian cathedral was derided as a “root cellar.” As family lore has it, some initial customers were so ashamed of their meatless emasculation (then, like now, meat was tied to bodily robustness and masculinity), they entered the establishment through the back door. Today, the restaurant’s tagline, “Healthy Indulgence,” continues to push back against the stereotype that vegetarian food is bland.
Haus Hiltl owes much of its menu to vegetarian dining traditions in other parts of the world, particularly India. Thanks to religious practices within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, many of India’s vast and varied cuisines have been historically vegetarian—and these cuisines had a longstanding impact on Haus Hiltl’s menu. In 1951, family member Margrith Hiltl served as Switzerland’s delegate in the World Vegetarian Congress in Delhi. There, she met future Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who ate at Haus Hiltl on a journey to Switzerland in 1953. The cultural exchange has enriched Hiltl’s menu, which includes items such as an Indian vegetarian thali, or meal combo.
The restaurant remains a great option for vegetarians lost in a sea of meat, but the owners say that about 80 percent of diners aren’t vegetarian: They just come for the food. With dishes such as eggplant-and-okra-filled bamja, a mean vegetarian Bolognese, and a pay-by-weight dessert buffet, even the most avowed of carnivores are sure to admit that the erstwhile “abstinence cafe” is anything but a root cellar.