by Paul Doolan
This article was first published in the book Cream: The Best of Zürich - dining out guide 2005.
Celtic people may have introduced us to the delights of whiskey (yes, with an ‘e’) and Guinness, but in ancient times they were not celebrated for their culinary genius. Restaurants were thin on the ground in Celtic Zurich. This changed when the Romans arrived. By the first century AD the area near the Weinplatz had developed into a quarter offering traders and legionnaires taverns where they could gamble, quench their thirsts and satisfy a variety of hungers.
The Dark Ages meant lean pickings on the restaurant front. The townsfolk of Zurich promoted Regula and Felix to the position of patron saints. Pilgrims began to arrive and the business of providing them with food took off. The first entrepreneurs were Franciscan monks. Restaurants Franziskaner and the Barfusser in the Niederdorf are reminders of this period when the friars, or ‘Barefooters’ ran the restaurants. Today’s Cafe Raben on the Hechtplatz is built on the site of a guesthouse that dates back a thousand years and is associated with another pilgrimage – Einsiedeln. Things must have been occasionally rough in these medieval eateries and the City Council ordered that food should be served only after guests had handed in their weapons.
The guilds became the political power brokers in 1336 and their houses developed into fully blown restaurants. Today’s Zunfthaus zur Ruden and Zimmerleauten make up a pretty pair on the banks of the Limmat. In 1350 the town mayor organised a massacre of his enemies in a wine bar in the Niederdorfstrasse 20, so the area’s reputation for being wild is well founded. Some of today’s restaurants have histories that reach back into this age: Zum Storchen has been feeding guests since 1347, Opus since 1474 and Swiss Chuchli has been in the business since 1504.
In 1522 some die-hards defied the Catholic Church by eating sausages on a Friday in Zunfthaus zur Saffran and thereby started the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation wasn’t a good time for restaurants however as the new authorities frowned upon drinking and by the mid-17th century closing time had become 6:00 PM.
By the late 18th century tourism was growing and many laws had lapsed. Hotel Zum Schwert saw the likes of Casanova, Goethe, Mozart and Tsar Alexander I come and stay and its reputation for good food grew. Tea and coffee were added to the menu. By the mid-19th century the Langstrasse neighbourhood, with its mix of European immigrants, was gaining a reputation for cheap restaurants and loose living while in the town centre the age of the great hotels was dawning with the Baur au Ville on the Paradeplatz and its sister, the Baur au Lac by the lake. To drink hot chocolate at Sprunglis and then saunter down to the Baur au Lac for dinner became the height of chic. Zurich’s first ‘ethnic’ restaurant opened in 1874, the Bodega Espanola, and is still going strong. By the end of the century concerned women had founded alcohol free restaurants like the Karl der Grosse (still going today but serving alcohol) and vegetarians had discovered their Mecca in Hiltls – Europe’s oldest vegetarian restaurant.
The 20th century has been a time of firsts: the first self-service restaurant (1901); the first Movenpick (1948) and Migros (1952) restaurants; the first Chinese (1958); the first McDonalds and first firebombing of McDonalds (1982). The likes of the Kronnenhalle maintains traditions of fine dining while deregulation in 1996 has permitted a post-modern explosion of tastes.
We’ve come a long way since the Celts: in today’s Zurich, the world is your oyster.