With a focus on local produce and a thirst for new food festivals, Zürich is becoming a hot gastronome destination. Embracing a more playful approach to cuisine, the renowned business hub is now abuzz with spectacular restaurants, bohemian cafes and legions of street food stalls. Here’s what to try for starters.
Meatballs and blue potatoes at the Food Zürich food festival © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet
‘I was a film-maker,’ says Mika Lanz, tall, spectacled and moustachioed, striding around a small, sterile studio in wellington boots. ‘Feature films, commercials, music videos. Now I make sausages.’
And not just any sausages. In his workshop beneath a church, Mika and his mum (who stitches the sausage packaging on a sewing machine) run Mikas, a company that produces small batches of handmade Stadtjaeger, using pork sourced from organic pigs raised within Zürich city limits.
The output is very much quality over quantity, and a delicate slice of Stadtjaeger, marinated with blueberry, lemon peel and spices, will make you grateful he called time on his film career. Around two dozen delis and shops stock it, including the excellent Berg und Tal in the Viadukt.
A saddle of veal steak, served at the Michelin-starred Saltz restaurant in Zürich © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet
Where to eat Zürich’s signature dish
Zürich’s signature dish, Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, is something most visitors will try: sliced veal in a creamy white wine sauce. It's as straightforward as it sounds, but if you want to see how exciting veal can be, take the train from Römerhof to Saltz, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Dolder Grand hotel.
The trip is worth it for the views over Zürich alone, but also for the hotel’s famous art – over 100 pieces by Damien Hirst, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and others are splayed casually along the corridors. Here, a satisfying saddle of veal steak is served with a jus, chanterelles, pan-fried romaine lettuce and mashed potato.
Tahiti vanilla and salted caramel squares, handmade at Zürich's Max Chocolatier © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet
Search out heavenly Swiss chocolate
It’s not just the heavenly treats that make visiting Max Chocolatier something of a celestial experience. Located down a charming cobbled street in the Old Town, the store is just around the corner from the splendid Fraumünster, whose Marc Chagall-designed stained glass windows are enchanting when lit up.
However, true divinity is to be found inside Max’s tasting room where the store’s seasonal delicacies make up some sort of sweet-tooth shrine. Think chocolate truffles with caramel, sea salt and Grand Cru Rio Humbri 42% couverture; dried passionfruit in milk chocolate; and Tahiti vanilla and fleur de sel caramelplättli (caramel squares with Camargue salt).
A cucumber-basil smash cocktail at Hiltl vegetarian restaurant in Zürich © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet
The world’s first vegetarian restaurant
‘Most people don’t realise we’re a vegetarian restaurant,’ shrugs Rolf Hiltl of Zürich’s pay-by-weight chain Hiltl (eight addresses and counting). ‘They eat and leave and still don’t know.’ Indeed, there’s no signage to indicate that a Hiltl is meat-free. As much as they might be justified in flashing neon lights proclaiming themselves as the world’s first vegetarian restaurant (they are, dating from 1898, and there’s a Guinness World Record certificate upstairs in the cooking school to prove it), this no-fuss, laid-back approach is also very Zürich.
It’s a deliberate strategy on Hiltl’s part. Many diners remain unaware it’s vegetarian because of the focus on healthy indulgence – encouraged by the self-service buffet of around 100 dishes and 12 wonderful desserts, ranging from blackberry rice pudding to blueberry-hazelnut crumble.
Even the alcoholic drinks sound nutritious: the cucumber-basil smash, for example, is actually a cocktail made with Zürich’s Turicum gin which is distilled with local pine needles, rosehip and lime blossom. Seek out the artisan Gents tonic water, made from Gentian root grown in the Jura Mountains, for a 100% Zürich-made G&T.
A food festival frenzy
The Jelmoli Food Market on Bahnhofstrasse is not an everyday shopping experience. Akin to an upmarket department store, it has stalls of local vegetables and shelves of imported Fortnum & Mason products. Here you’ll find Oona Swiss caviar (sustainably made from sturgeon bred in naturally warm mountain spring water) and Switzerland’s first cheese humidor: a giant refrigerated room made from local oak, which is home to more than 200 cheeses.
In 2017, Jelmoli hosted the opening party of the burgeoning Food Zürich festival, with DJs spinning tunes, chefs from five-star hotels plating up truffled sausages and salmon tartare on cauliflower rösti, and some playful interaction for visitors (think make-your-own pesto stations or a roulette wheel wedged in next to the meatball stand). The annual food event runs for 11 days across May and June.
Zürich West's first zero-waste cafe, Foifi © Karyn Noble / Lonely Planet
Zürich West: from underground playground to gourmet haven
Zürich West’s Frau Gerolds Garten, former scrubland turned retro-chic hangout, is an apt place to chew over the area’s importance in the city’s food scene. The bunting-and-coloured-bulb-strewn courtyard, with its rising tiers of bright-hued chairs and lounges, is usually filled with bohemian partying, but if you climb up the arty tiled steps to look over this multi-purpose space, you get an excellent view over its vegetable gardens.
Characterised most obviously by the 25m-high Freitag Tower of freight containers and the 834m-long Viaduct, Zürich West now houses the indoor Markthalle and specialty food and clothing shops under its railway arches. Along Geroldstrasse is Zürich’s first zero-waste cafe and food store, Foifi.
‘Zürich West has always been the rebellious part of Zürich,’ explains Vania, co-founder of the local Street Food Festival. ‘Swiss regulations and rules have previously made it very difficult for food businesses or ventures like street food to start. But here in Zürich West there would be underground events or food events in people’s houses and word would get around.’
Now the city’s more adventurous side is taking over. The Street Food Festival itself is a decision-paralysing presentation of food trucks serving all manner of cuisines: chimney cake, bao, pho, burgers, flaming salmon, strudel, even ‘frozen unicorn poop’ (colourful yogurt with sprinkles).
‘When we first tried street food, Swiss people would just look at the food trucks and think yes, it was interesting to look at. They had to be encouraged to eat it,’ Vania adds. ‘But they would go to Berlin on holiday, for example, and see the street food scene there as something exciting. So, it’s been gradual.’
Karyn travelled to Zürich with support from Zürich Tourism (www.zuerich.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.