Rolf Hiltl: no one will refuse a well-prepared vegetarian dish

In 1898, in Zurich, at Sihlstrasse 28, next to the famous Bahnhofstrasse, an institution atypical for its era opened its doors – a vegetarian cafe. In addition, it did not serve alcoholic beverages. “Vegetarierheim und Abstinnz Café” – “Vegetarian shelter and cafe for teetotalers” – lasted, however, for several years, passing through the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. Now it conquers the hearts and stomachs of vegetarians of the 21st century. 

Vegetarian cuisine in Europe was just beginning to timidly come into fashion, and the restaurant could barely make ends meet – its average revenue was 30 francs a day. No wonder: Zurich at that time was still far from the financial center, the residents did not throw money down the drain, and for many families it was already a luxury to serve meat on the table at least once a week, on Sundays. Vegetarians in the eyes of ordinary people looked like stupid “grass eaters.” 

The history of the “teetotalers’ cafe” would have ended in nothing if there had not been among its customers a certain visitor from Bavaria named Ambrosius Hiltl. Already at the age of 20, he, a tailor by profession, suffered from severe attacks of gout and could not work, as he could hardly move his fingers. One of the doctors predicted his early death if Hiltle did not give up eating meat.

The young man followed the doctor’s advice and began to eat regularly at a vegetarian restaurant. Here, in 1904, he became manager. And the following year, he took another step towards health and prosperity – he married the cook Martha Gnoipel. Together, the couple bought the restaurant in 1907, naming it after themselves. Since then, four generations of the Hiltl family have been fulfilling the vegetarian needs of Zurich residents: the restaurant has been passed down through the male line, from Ambroisus successively to Leonhard, Heinz and finally Rolf, the current owner of Hiltl. 

Rolf Hiltl, who started running the restaurant in 1998, just after its centenary, soon founded, together with the Fry brothers, the vegetarian food chain Tibits by Hiltl with branches in London, Zurich, Bern, Basel and Winterthur. 

According to the Swiss Vegetarian Society, only 2-3 percent of the population adhere to a completely vegetarian lifestyle. But, of course, no one will refuse a well-prepared vegetarian dish. 

“The first vegetarians were, for the most part, dreamers who believed that heaven could be built on earth. Today, people are switching to plant-based foods, taking more care of their own health. When the newspapers were full of articles about mad cow disease a few years ago, there were queues to our restaurant,” recalls Rolf Hiltl. 

Despite the fact that the restaurant has worked throughout the 20th century, the vegetarian cuisine as a whole has long been in the shadows. Its heyday came in the 1970s, when the ideas of protecting animals and the environment gained momentum. Many young people felt a desire to prove their love for their smaller brothers by deed by refusing to eat them. 

Played a role and interest in exotic cultures and cuisines: for example, Indian and Chinese, which are based on vegetarian dishes. It is no coincidence that Hiltl’s menu today includes many dishes made according to recipes from Asian, Malaysian, and Indian cuisine. Vegetable Paella, Arabic Artichokes, Flower Soup and other delicacies. 

Breakfast is served from 6 am to 10.30 am, visitors are offered culinary pastries, light vegetable and fruit salads (from 3.50 francs per 100 grams), as well as natural juices. The restaurant is open until midnight. After dinner, numerous desserts are especially popular. You can also buy cookbooks where Hiltl chefs share their secrets and learn how to cook for yourself. 

“What I love most about this job is that I can amaze and delight my clients without hurting a single animal,” says Rolf Hiltl. “Since 1898, we have covered more than 40 million appliances, imagine how many animals would have to die if each serving contained at least 100 grams of meat?” 

Rolf believes that Ambrosius Hiltl would be pleased to see his offspring on the day of the 111th anniversary, but also surprised no less. Completely renovated in 2006, the restaurant now serves 1500 patrons a day, as well as a bar (no longer for teetotalers), a disco and culinary arts courses. Among the guests from time to time there are also celebrities: the famous musician Paul McCartney or the Swiss director Mark Foster appreciated the vegetarian cuisine. 

The Zurich Hiltl entered the Guinness Book of Records as the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe. And in the social network Facebook, which is popular in Switzerland, 1679 fans are registered on the page of the Hitl restaurant.

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