The oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world is not in India, but serves good Indian food
Towards the end of a weeklong trip through Switzerland, I had dinner at Hiltl in Zurich, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world recognized by Guinness World Records. I didn’t fancy Indian food yet and couldn’t wait to see what was on offer. I opted for the Mushroom Stroganoff, a Russian dish almost always made with chicken or beef. Although I have made a vegetarian version at home several times, eating it in a restaurant in Europe seemed more legitimate to me. The mushroom mixture was perfectly spicy and was just the comfort food I needed at the end of my travels.
Along with classic meat dishes recreated using meat substitutes, the menu features plenty of Indian and Southeast Asian dishes. One of their signature dishes, Banana Madras is an ode to Indian flavors and spices. A juicy, ripe banana served in a rich curry with a side of rice and pappadam is a popular draw. Other favorites are the palak paneer, chole, pakodas and their Indian thali.
Becoming a Vegetarian in 20th Century Zurich
Today, a fully vegetarian restaurant in Zurich doesn’t seem like a big deal today, but in 1898, when the Vegetarierheim and Abstinence-Cafe came into being, such a place was unthinkable. In a country where meat is predominant in all meals, vegetarian food was both scarce and mocked. So much so that the place was nicknamed “the root bunker” and customers were reluctant to be seen dining out, many choosing to enter and exit through the backdoor.
Around this time, a Bavarian tailor named Ambrosius Hiltl moved to Zurich. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with rheumatism and advised on a herbal diet as a remedy. Hiltl began to dine at the Abstinence-Café and, to his surprise, his health improved considerably. When the opportunity arose, he joined the restaurant as a manager. In 1904, he eventually bought the restaurant and married chef Martha Gneupel. As sales started to improve, the couple renamed the restaurant to Hiltl and moved it to Sihlstrasse, an area outside the city then surrounded by forests.