Veggie Food – from Weird to Wonderful. The Hiltl story, or why the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe is located in Zurich.
Ambrosius Hiltl (1877-1969) loved everything that was beautiful – opera, nature, good paintings and furniture, fine clothes and travel. He was also remarkably flexible and enterprising, had considerable business talent and a healthy share of self-confidence.
Ambrosius Hiltl The son of a small farmer in Neumarkt, Bavaria, he was naturally required to learn a trade, in his case that of tailor. After his apprenticeship he set out on his travels as a journeyman because, at that time, artisans were expected to earn their living abroad for a few years. They were supported by their trade associations with a small payment per kilometre travelled. Ambrosius Hiltl's travels took him to Switzerland several times. He earned a living with needle, thread, scissors and thimble in Basel, the Jura area, Geneva, Liestal, Herisau, and Interlaken, before settling in Zurich in the autumn of 1897. He was then 20 years old.
In 1898, the «Vegetarians' Home and Teetotallers' Café» opened in Stockerstrasse; because of this unfavourable location it soon moved to Sihlstrasse. However, the restaurant was still unsuccessful – on the one hand because of poor management and, on the other, because at that time vegetarians were considered eccentric. It was also difficult to find suitable kitchen staff. In 1901 Ambrosius Hiltl contracted rheumatoid arthritis. His doctor did not beat about the bush but prophesied an early death if Hiltl did not completely alter his diet and refrain entirely from eating meat.
Entrance to the restaurant
at the turn of the century In those days it was difficult for an unmarried young man to abide by a strict vegetarian diet and still eat tasty and varied food. At the suggestion of a friend, he moved into the Vegetarierheim (vegetarians' home). It was a time when the Sunday roast was a status symbol – being able to afford meat showed that one had done well for oneself. Vegetarians were mocked as grass-eaters, and the home was popularly known as Wurzelbunker, literally root cellar.
Martha Hiltl-Gneupel Ambrosius Hiltl was impressed by the vegetarian cuisine and, most important of all, he was cured in a surprisingly short time. For this reason he did not hesitate when the ailing restaurant needed a new manager. It was a tremendous challenge for the tailor from Neumarkt. The daily turnover at the home was then 35 francs, out of which the staff (two kitchen maids, a waitress, and the cook) all had to be paid. The cook, Martha Gneupel, had been raised in a strictly vegetarian family in Saxony; she ran the kitchen and helped serve the guests. Thanks to a steadily growing turnover, Ambrosius Hiltl finally managed to take over the business in 1904. Shortly afterwards he married Martha Gneupel; they had two sons and a daughter.
When Ambrosius Hiltl purchased the property in 1907, his friends asked in amazement: «Why are you buying a house on the outer edge of the city?» There was still a small wood between Bahnhofstrasse and Sihlstrasse then, and opposite the building was an old cemetery and St. Anna's chapel. In 1909 the Hiltl family became citizens of Zurich and in 1925 the restaurant was refurbished for the first time.
The Hiltl façade from 1931 to 1973 It is interesting to note that, almost at the same time as Hiltl discovered vegetarian cuisine, Dr. Max Bircher-Benner, ten years his senior, opened a clinic to cure his patients with a meatfree diet. Neither Hiltl nor Bircher-Benner fitted the image of dogmatic sectarians. Rather than seeing diet as all important, they saw it in the context of culture and lifestyle. Ambrosius Hiltl was no moralising killjoy. Dr. Ralph Bircher, Max Bircher-Benner's son, in a publication celebrating Hiltl's 90th birthday said: «If you look at Ambrosius Hiltl, the pioneer of vegetarian cuisine, you'll see he is the exact opposite of what people tend to expect of a vegetarian. He is more robust, energetic and jovial than most men at his age, a successful man of the world, and anything but a pale, narrow-chested, unsuccessful and embittered eccentric.»
«My grandfather was an open-minded man with many interests. He enjoyed travelling, fraternised with his guests and created an atmosphere in which artists, politicians and intellectuals in particular felt both relaxed and inspired,» This is how Heinz Hiltl remembers his grandfather. This tradition has continued, and the Hiltl restaurant today still hosts celebrities from all walks of life.