Over the past few years, however, this is decidedly (and deliciously) not the case. Switzerland’s largest city has upped its culinary cred and is emerging as one of Europe’s hottest food destinations.
No longer just upscale and tranditional, Zurich’s restaurants are coming into their own.
The savory scene
Thanks to an influx of talented young chefs looking to make their mark, as well as the city’s efforts to revitalize Zurich-West, a formal industrial district that’s now one of Zurich’s culinary meccas, Swiss menus have never been more mouthwatering.
One of Zurich’s newest eateries is also one of its most intriguing. In the heart of the old town, Rechberg 1837 is housed in a building erected in 1837. Inspired by the historic structure’s “birth date” the four friends who started the restaurant decided that everything on the menu would only come from ingredients available in Zurich in 1837 before industrialization — and processed foods — existed. Think of it as old-world ingredients given a modern rebirth.
The restaurant relies on its own carefully curated network of farmers, hunters (Rechberg 1837 serves wild deer when available), anglers and even mushroom foragers to source its products. Even the yeast used for its sourdough breads (known lovingly as Willy, after Swiss folk hero Wilhelm Tell) is cultivated in-house.
The bread, not surprisingly, is one of the most popular items on the menu. Because of Rechberg’s strict adhesion to its pre-industrial food ethos, the seasonal menu is constantly changing to adapt to what’s regionally available, so diners are always in for a culinary surprise.
As the name implies, the line between art and food is deliciously blurred here. Everything on the menu reflects an emphasis on slowly crafted, rigorously sourced, handmade provisions. The restaurant’s potatoes, for example, come from a small, organic producer from the Swiss Alps and the meat from the Wurstmacher, a master sausage maker about an hour outside the city. The restaurant was also the first in Zurich to serve only biodynamically produced wines, much of which comes from artisanal, small-batch wine maker Markus Rauch.
In the summer, grab a coveted table outdoors and enjoy the restaurant’s garden.
Head chef and general manager Mark Thommen is proud to be part of Zurich’s new food zeitgeist. “Nothing happened in Zurich for many years in the culinary world. They were very stuck in the old ways,” explains Thommen.
“When I arrived here 20 years ago from Australia, I felt like I came here in a time machine,” he says. “In the past 10 years a lot has happened. Chefs are coming back from overseas with experience and inspirations and are much more open-minded than the previous generation.”
Maison Manesse takes everything you might expect at a Michelin-starred restaurant — white tablecloths, a formal atmosphere and overly orchestrated service — and turns it on its head. This laid-back, playful spot serves elevated cuisine without the attitude, an example set forth by the restaurant’s chef and co-owner Fabian Spiquel.
Spiquel wants guests to have as much fun eating the food as he had while making it: “Come as you are, be served by a friend, enjoy, relax,” says Sqiquel, adding,”This ain’t your usual stiff affair.”
Maison Manesse is a laid-back, playful spot serving up attitude-free dishes that diners can’t get enough of.
Caroline Dyer-Smith Photography
The restaurant offers approachable dishes that can be enjoyed as a surprise six-course tasting menu or à la carte. True to its philosophy that food should be fun, the menu features several interactive DIY dishes. The signature dish is the DIY beef fillet tartare, which comes with a selection of ingredients on the side like homemade mustard and pickled shallots accompanied by suggested instructions on how to prepare it. If you’ve room left for dessert (and you should find some), go for the DIY marshmallows that you roast over a small flame.
Frau Gerolds Garten
Few spots encapsulate Zurich’s creative and quirky food scene as much as this multi-purpose spot: It’s a garden, restaurant and bar all at once.
Imagine that your neighborhood flea market decided to throw a garden party with your bohemian grandmother in charge of the décor, and you’ll get a sense of this captivating spot. At the heart of the newly thriving Zurich-West district, it embraces its industrial roots with an eclectic space populated by large shipping containers and a rooftop bar that overlooks the train station.
Few spots encapsulate Zuruch’s creative and quirky food scene as much as this garden-cum-outdoor-restaurant-cum-bar.
Here the garden moniker is taken seriously: About a quarter of the property is devoted to a thriving green space, which results in produce traveling not miles but steps from the earth to your plate.
At night, Frau Gerolds Garten’s is a popular spot to enjoy a drink with friends. And in winter, the owners erect a makeshift pop-up chalet complete with fireplace and cozy throws where guests warm their insides with the quintessential Swiss food: ooey-gooey cheese fondue.
IM VIADUKTs Markthalle
Like its nearby Zurich-West district neighbor Frau Gerolds Garten, IM VIADUKT has become a beloved go-to hangout symbolizing the renewal of the formerly all-but-abandoned area. It takes its name from the railyard viaduct that, over the last few years, was transformed into dozens of retail spaces that sell art, handmade furniture, clothing and more.
If you don’t have long in Zurich but are looking to take a bite out of the city’s culinary creativity, head straight for Markthalle. This condensed series of over 20 food shops, markets and takeout counters (as well as an eponymous eatery, Restaurant Markthalle) showcases an excellent sampling of what Zurich has to offer.
At Vom Fischer & Syner Fru fish lovers can try regional Swiss seafood, as well as oysters fresh from the North Sea. Head to Berg und Tal for a selection of regional favorites like honey made from bees from Switzerland’s Ticino region. Käsers-Schloss is a great place to pick up fresh produce and be sure to grab a couple of bottles of lovely Swiss wine at Südhang (you’re unlikely to find it outside of the country as Switzerland only exports two percent of its wine).
The sweet stuff
Spend just a few minutes walking around Zurich, and you could easily be forgiven for thinking the banking powerhouse’s favorite currency is not gold or euros but rather chocolate. From the most intricate, multi-layered cocoa confections to straightforward slabs, chocolate in all its permutations reigns supreme in Zurich and is an essential part of the city’s food experience.
As with the rest of Zurich’s food landscape, the chocolate frontier is also getting fresh infusions of innovation in recent years. Not even chocolate is sacrosanct; daring new chocolatiers are working hard to come up with creative ways to make the dark delight even more desirable.
Opened in March 2018, La Flor is likely the newest addition to Zurich’s confection cache. The assiduous sourcing of cocoa beans sets La Flor apart from competitors. The owners source all of the chocolate from only a handful of South American producers and each bar is made from the beans of a single farm (rather than mixing chocolate from different growers). La Flor also offers chocolate making and tasting workshops so you can train to be a cocoa connoisseur.
Oro de Cacao
Another recent trailblazer adding to Zurich’s sugar rush is chocolatier Dieter Meier’s Oro de Cacao shop. What distinguishes Meier’s luscious creations is the use of a patented cold-extraction method that he says helps retain the pure taste of the cocoa without any of the bitterness. If you’re a would-be chocoholic who has always been put off by the sharp bitterness of pure dark cocoa, Oro is worth investigating.
This chocolate oasis is an institution in Switzerland (with Zurich as its headquarters) and has been in operation since 1836. The stores, peppered throughout the city, are hard to miss as their windows are usually filled with a tower of luxemburgerli, small and silky macaroons that come in every flavor and color imaginable.
A rookie mistake is filling up on the mini macrons, but it’s not the worst thing you could do at Confiserie Sprüngli.
But try not to fill up on the mini macrons (a rookie mistake) as you’ll want to leave room for at least one of Sprüngli’s truffles du jour. Fashioned from the freshest chocolate and cream available, once made they are only sold for 24 hours to ensure peak freshness. Be warned, if you don’t get to a shop before 2 p.m., they’re usually sold out. If you’re looking for the perfect gift to bring back home, grab a couple of the delicious “hay milk” bars. The cows are fed a special blend of Swiss hay that Sprüngli claims creates the smoothest chocolate imaginable.
Visit Zurich in May during the annual FOOD ZURICH festival, and you’ll see what all the buzz is about.
The old guard
Of course, what better way to appreciate the new than by sprinkling your experience with a little soupcon of the old? These oldies-but-goodies help frame Zurich’s food history and are worth a nibble.
Looking more like something that belongs on an ol’ timey movie set than a food store, Schwarzenbach has operated in Zurich’s old town for over a century. Stepping into the store is to be transported back in time and the charm of the place is sure to elicit at least one “ahhhhhh.” Schwarzenbach’s walls and counter space are lined with cubby holes filled with dried fruit, coffee beans, sweets, teas and spices, many of which you pay for by weight.
Schwarzenbach Teecafé’s walls and counter space are lined with cubby holes filled with dried fruit, coffee beans, sweets, teas and spices, many of which you pay for by weight.
Opened in 1802, Oepfelchammer is Zurich’s oldest remaining wine tavern. Go to enjoy traditional Swiss fare like geschnetzeltes kalbfleisch (sliced veal) and also (if you can find the space) to etch your name on its ancient wooden walls. An Oepfelchammer tradition is to give any guest able to successfully climb the ceiling’s wooden beams a free glass of wine.
Said to be the world’s first vegetarian restaurant, Hiltl was founded in 1898 and continues to be popular with Zurich’s non-carnivore-inclined citizens. Though buffets rarely get rave reviews, Hiltl’s 100-choice extravaganza (with many vegan-friendly choices) is the exception. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian, stop in for one of their inventive veggie-based cocktails like the cucumber-basil smash.
Sandra MacGregor has been writing about travel, food and wine for nearly a decade. Though her home base is Canada, her wanderlust has led her to pack up and move around the globe, including living in Paris, France; Seoul, South Korea; and (most recently for two years) in Cape Town, South Africa.