Veggie Food – from Weird to Wonderful. The Hiltl story, or why the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe is located in Zurich.
New Year 1998: Rolf Hiltl starts
into the next millenium Although he was already interested in the family restaurant as a child, Rolf Hiltl (born in 1965) did not want to take the easy road into his father's business. He served his apprenticeship in the kitchens of the Grand Hotel Dolder in Zurich, where the cuisine was in the style of master chef Escoffier – with meat, of course. Rolf was never a strict vegetarian, but despite this he came in for quite a lot of heckling at school because of his parents' business.
After the Dolder he attended the Hotel School in Lausanne, and then spent some time in San Francisco, Acapulco and Paris. Rolf Hiltl had many plans, and he dreamed of opening a restaurant and bar in San Francisco. But it so happened that the Hiltl Restaurant in Zurich – through still popular – had lost some of its élan and could well use a few new ideas and a breath of fresh air. Rolf's father Heinz Hiltl, who had startled his professional peers when he refurbished his business in the early 1970s, did not want to undertake any further innovations without consulting his successor.
His daughter Sonja had become a kindergarten teacher, but his son Rolf abandoned his plans of working abroad. «I think my father sometimes found it difficult to cope with me because I kept changing things and trying something new», he says with a smile. «But then change always takes so long here in Switzerland.» Rolf Hiltl's approach is more American than Swiss. He works on the trial and error principle: try something out and then improve on it.
The great-grandson of the founder, Ambrosius Hiltl, could just as well have trusted his instinct: a survey conducted in 1990 confirmed what he knew intuitively. The image of vegetarianism had undergone a fundamental change. A vegetarian was no longer looked upon as someone weird or eccentric who nobly abstained from eating meat, but as someone who enjoyed a different kind of food; in fact, people who eat little or no meat now tend to be trendsetters. Meatless food is no longer sloppy or tasteless food, the very opposite holds true: the modern semivegetarian is a connoisseur who combines an enjoyment of food with a healthy diet. And the new approach at the Hiltl provides just that. Good wines and spirits, aromatic teas and coffee are included on the menu as a matter of course. The refurbished, bistrostyle restaurant completed in 1993 clearly reflects Rolf Hiltl's ideas and indicates the new status of vegetarian cuisine.
Opting for a vegetarian restaurant when dining out – almost unthinkable just a few years ago – seems quite natural today. About twothirds of the people who eat at the Hiltl are women. «Women have always been more health conscious and are always ready to try something new», says Rolf Hiltl. «That's why we focused on increasing the number of male guests via our female clientele.» Not without success – more and more men from nearby offices now eat their lunch at the Hiltl.
For its centenary Hiltl had grass
growing all over the restaurant's
façade On 1 January 1998 – one hundred years after the opening of the first vegetarian restaurant in Switzerland – Rolf Hiltl took over the business from his parents and is now solely responsible for running it. At that time he would hardly have believed that vegetarian cuisine would gain popularity so rapidly.
Naturally, a growing number of requests for further Hiltl operations are regularly received from within Switzerland and also from abroad. For various reasons, however, they were always refused. Then in 2000, together with the Frei brothers as partners, the first tibits by Hiltl was opened near the Opera in Zurich. There are now already three tibits in Switzerland (in Zurich Seefeld, Winterthur and Berne and, from 2007, in Basle). They are all tremendously popular (www.tibits.ch).
In line with the tradition started in 1898, the Hiltl in Zurich's Sihlstrasse will continue to be personally run by the Hiltl family. With its growing popularity, Rolf Hiltl had to consider enlarging the restaurant only a few years after the last refurbishment in 1993.
«I find the 2006/2007 construction project fascinating, and am really looking to the opening of our enlarged premises», Rolf Hiltl says. «In future, too, we aim to meld innovation and tradition. There'll be more space, the restaurant will have more generous proportions.» The guests will be able to enjoy an excellent vegetarian meal in a quiet, relaxing atmosphere. Apart from a larger restaurant, the project includes a bar, a banqueting area, a larger takeaway section – and the new Hiltl cooking studio.
And the next expansion plans? There's nothing definite yet, but Marielle and Rolf Hiltl are raising three small children and, with Céline, Léna and Téo there will be ample opportunities for the fifth generation...