Johanna of the passionate cook  has been running a series called Culinary Snapshots, of cities around the world. The Culinary Snapshot of Zürich  that I wrote is now up there. (The pictures there were taken in late March by the way, when it was warm enough for t-shirts!) Re-reading it now I think I may need some armor against proprietors of Asian-Fusion restaurants in town. :)
[Edit: A few people have reported that they couldn’t find the article. I clicked the link just now and it was there, but just in case I’ve reproduced it here, without the nice photo. Do keep in mind that the original article was written in early 2007, so places may or may not still be open (though I think most of the places listed are as of early 2008.)]
Zürich is the largest city in Switzerland, and its financial center. It has the largest airport in the country as well as the largest railroad hub. Many of the infamous secretive Swiss banks have their headquarters here. To put things in perspective, the population of Switzerland is around 6 million, and 1 million of those live in the greater Zürich area.
Like most Swiss cities, Zürich is arranged around a beautiful lake (the Zürisee or Lake Zurich) and river (the Limmat). The Alps can be seen in the distance on a clear day. The streets are well paved and impeccably clean. You can sense the discreet display of wealth everywhere.
Culturally and historically, Zürich has been influenced by two things: the rather severe form of Protestantism as espoused by people like Zwingli and Calvin, and those banks. The religious influence is seen still in things like the store operating hours - just about everything closes up early on Saturdays and all day Sunday, though otherwise the city is quite liberal (it gave full legal rights to gay couples way back in 2002 for instance). And, the presence of so many underground bank vaults mean that there are no subways, just overground trams. It’s a rather no-nonsense city, which may lack some of the historical charm of the nation’s capital, Bern, or Luzern (Lucerne), which is an hour away. It’s still a quite lively city, and probably the best for really upscale shopping if that’s your thing, especially along the Bahnhofstrasse.
The flip side of those staid bankers is the large and lively student population from the University of Zürich and the Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH), Albert Einstein’s alma mater (well he didn’t graduate, but still…). Perhaps not coincidentally, Zürich is supposed to have one of the best club scenes in Europe.
You may think that Swiss cuisine means cheese, chocolate and fondue. The reality is that there is no real unifying “Swiss” cuisine - almost every Swiss speciality is specifically regional. There are many regions, so Swiss cuisine is full of variety. The mountainous topography and varied climate has meant that farming is quite small-scale compared to other countries. A lot of that is dairy production, both cows and goats, which is why there are so many different cheeses. Some areas have fruit production (apples, pears), and in some other areas, pretty decent wine is made.
All this has lead to the evolution of a to a relatively hearty peasant-type cuisine, based on dairy, some meat, potatoes, and whatever is in season. Another factor that has influenced Swiss cuisine is Switzerland’s unique position on the map of Europe. A lot of ancient trade routes from south to north passed through the Alps, so the local food supply was enlivened by the addition of various imported foods because of the traditional trade routes through the alps, which got people in contact with all kind of “exotic” products, especially expensive spices like pepper and cinnamon.
Zürich is relatively small but very international city. That means you can get almost anything. Looking at the new restaurant openings, the current trend is towards “Asian” in general, with “Spanish” not far behind.
Whenever they come to Zürich, many of our North American friends stop for a “sausage fix”. The variety and quality of sausages here is terrific. In most places where the sausage culture is celebrated, they are served with “Rösti”, the quintessential Swiss potato pancake, or “Spaetzli”, small dumplings. Local freshwater fish like “Egli” is also popular, especially in restaurants located along the shores of the Zürisee (Lake Zurich) or a river.
I know that many people who come to Switzerland want their cheese fondue…but it’s really not a speciality of the Zürich area, and is only served in the very touristy places. Not to say that it’s bad, mind you, but there’s so much else to fatten you up.
Since regional cuisine has peasant roots you might find some of it very caloric, such as Zürigschnätzlets, which is veal, kidney and mushrooms in a wine-cream sauce. Speaking of offal, many people have problems with Kutteln (tripe).
Also, this is a personal bias of mine, but so far I have been very underwhelmed by all of the trendy Asian-Fusion type of places that are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm all over town. Often these places sport sleek modern Asianesque interiors and serve a mishmash of cuisines from ‘exotic Asia’ - so you have Pad Thai and udon noodles and sushi and egg rolls all on the same menu. The better Asian restaurants tend to be small and plain, but they are at least more authentic - and, usually serve just one kind of Asian cuisine.
The oddest thing may be the language! If you’ve ever learned German in a regular German class, you can forget about trying to understand the local Schwiizerdütsch - it sounds totally different, very sing-song. Schwiizerdütsch words are sort of funny too. An example: “Mischtchratzerli” (literally translated as”manure graters” - small single-serving sized chickens, roasted or deep-fried). Even mundane foods sound different - “Patätli” are tiny new potatoes. And you thought that a potato was Kartoffel in German! There’s a lot of mixing in on French and a bit of Italian in the vernacular: for instance a chicken is never called Hähnchen as it is in Germany - it’s called Poulet, which is the French word for it. On the other hand, Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch), and many specialties simply have their name from another language region.
A lot depends on what your country allows you to import, and how long the transit time is.
Zürich is very international, and you can find more or less anything. There may be more Italian places than other kinds of cuisine, but I don’t think any one cuisine dominates.
Sausage stands, particularly if they grill them on the spot. The Vordere Sternen at the Bellevue is said to have the best Bratwurst in town, but there are plenty of other good sausage stands. (If you get a veal bratwurst, skip the mustard, which will overwhelm its delicate flavor.) In the colder months you can also find hot roasted chestnut stands (Heisse Marroni) all over town, and crepe stands in the Altstadt (old city). Don’t miss the Glühwein around Christmas time. For a sit-down meal, the Mensa of the ETH (Federal Institute of Technology), which is budget (although a bit more expensive for guests than for students, but the quality is better than the reputation). If you are a student, keep your student ID ready to show; you might get the student price, but don’t insist. The Mensa also features a fabulous view of the city from the Polyterrasse. Another interesting and not that expensive experience would be the Lunch-Schiff, the lunch cruise on a Lake Zurich boat. And for the Apero, between work and dinner, have a beer at the Bauschänzli. Americans dying for a fast food fix might find the Swiss McDonald’s fun - they have sandwich combos that you don’t get in the U.S. - though at much higher prices. Another useful thing to know is that Zürich has many public fountains, and essentially all of them (except the ones with a sign “Kein Trinkwasser” or the international icon for non-potable water) run top quality drinking water.
Always look for the Tagesmenu (you never see it called Tagesteller here, in spite of what the guidebooks say) - this is the prix fixe daily special, and is usually a good deal. You can get a reasonably inexpensive meal at typical Italian places - remember, southern Switzerland is very Italian, so it’s almost regional. You will find such places along the Langstrasse, or in the Aussersihl area, but they are spread all over the town. If it looks like a “Mamma and Pappa place”, and the menu is relatively small, try it… you may have discovered something interesting.
We have a few pizzerias which we frequent regularly: the Vorbahnhof just besides the main station, at the Sihlquai tram stop, and the Molino at the Stauffacher. Swiss-Italian pizzas are large, very thin and are eaten with a knife and fork, never with your fingers. (Tangentially, the Pizza Hut near the main station went out of business last year…I don’t think those thick greasy pizzas did much for the locals.)
Zürich has the oldest continuously operating vegetarian restaurant in Europe, Hiltl. It’s been in business since 1898. The takeaway is good for an inexpensive picnic lunch, and the sit-down restaurant is pretty reasonable if you choose well from the buffet.
With visitors, we often go to the Zeughauskeller or the Bierhalle Kropf, just at the Paradeplatz - both traditional Wurst (sausage) and Potato type places with a civilized beer hall-type atmosphere. They are both very popular with locals, especially businessmen, as well as tourists. They are packed at lunch, but since they are big places you can usually get in.
Another great Zürich institution is the upstairs café at Confiserie Sprüngli on Paradeplatz. The pastries are to die for, though another interesting thing to try is the cream and berry-filled Birchermuesli, a great favorite with older ladies for a light lunch.
Two non-traditional places we go to quite a lot are King Kurry, a small Indian place at Bahnhof Wiedikon, and The Outback Lounge (which has nothing whatsoever to do with the American Outback chain), an Australian food place (kangaroo, ostrich, crocodile) with good people-watching. The pickup action around the bar on weekends is quite amusing. Zürich also has a lot of attractive cafés to while away your time in, just like any civilized European city. (There are also a couple of Starbucks, if you really must.)
The number 1 place in Zürich is actually outside of the city limits: Petermann’s Kunststuben in Zollikon. Within the city limits, just at the border of the old town is the Florhof. See here for more suggestions and addresses. And, for a very unusual dining experience (in total darkness) there is the Restaurant Blinde Kuh (see full review and report ).
Until not that long ago, Zürich was rather boring restaurant-wise. Some people might say it’s still boring, and perhaps compared to major gourmet capitals like Paris, Milan or London it may be. Things are slowly evolving however, and becoming a lot more diverse. A decade or so ago when I first started visiting Switzerland you couldn’t even find things like fresh ginger in the supermarkets - now you can find just about any kind of exotica you want. When people like to go out to eat it tends to be for an “occasion” - remember the Zürich is one of the most expensive cities in the world. This has meant that mid-range restaurants have suffered in terms of quality and diversity. What’s changed the restaurant scene the most perhaps is the proliferation of great clubs and bars, so you’re seeing more places that cater to the hunger needs of the club-and-bar-hopping crowd. (Unfortunately the Asian-Fusion trend is part of that but hopefully things will evolve for the better in that area.)
Start at the many supermarkets around town - Migros and Coop are the market dominators. The quality of produce and selection at the supermarkets is quite good. Within the city, the Coop - St. Annahof store on the Bahnhofstrasse is fairly small but has a good selection of interesting things like balsamic vinegars, olive oils and wines. There’s also a Coop in the brand new mega-mall, Sihl City. Migros City at Löwenplatz is the handiest to the main station. Check out the chocolate bar shelves at both places!
If you have the chance, go to one of the open-air markets, which take place at different locations at different days. The best source to find them is on the Züritipp  site, section “Ausserdem”, then look for “Börsen & Märkte, Lebensmittelmarkt”, for the specific day of the week. Laughing Lemon , which offers cooking and wine courses in English that get rave reviews, has a handy list of things that are in season, and listing of Zürich markets (on the sidebar there in a popup window).
On the higher end are the Food Factory in the Jelmoli department store, and the food department in the Globus (Löwenplatz and Bellevue). Pricey, but quite interesting to browse at least.
For a “old time shopping experience” go to Schwarzenbach at the Oberdorfstrasse in the old town. And, you can’t miss a trip to a Confiserie Sprüngli store for chocolates and other goodies. (I much prefer Sprüngli to the more internationally known Teuscher.) The Paradeplatz store is the flagship (see above for the tearoom), but there are smaller Sprünglis dotted around the city, including two conveniently positioned for last-minute shopping in the airport. I am very partial to their savory “Apero” nibbles, made from deliciously buttery pastry, that are quite ruinous to the waistline.
There are restaurants all over the city. A concentration is in the old town, on the right bank, along the Limmatquai and up into the hill. In the warmer months, most places along the Limmatquai have tables outside, and having a coffee in the afternoon, watching people, is someting you shouldn’t miss. Another concentration is Wiedikon/Aussersihl, and on the other side of the railway, the Industriequartier and Zürich West, a very trendy area with theaters and lots of clubs. Finally the Seefeld area is another center for restaurants.
As always, chain places, particularly if they are “international” should raise some suspicion. See my notes above about Asian-Fusion places.
Horst Petermann has already been mentioned. An “institution” is the Kronenhalle at the Bellevue (don’t forget the Bar there), or the Oepfelchammer in the old town.
All of the guides below are in German…so far we haven’t found any good English language restaurant guides. You can also try asking in the usually helpful English Forum Switzerland , where many expats hang out. * Zueritipp  - an online guide with a sort of young-ish focus * Neue Zürcher Zeitung , then click on “Restaurantführer”. The NZZ is the leading newspaper in Zürich * On paper: “Zürich zum Essen gern”, published by Orell Füssli * On paper: “Zürich geht aus!”, Edition Überblick; looks like a magazine, and is available at many newsstands
Not much is cheap in Zürich. However, remember that the prices you see in the menu are what you actually pay. Tipping is not needed, although many people leave the change to the next franc, or five or ten, depending on the tab. Many places close the kitchen at 22:00, and close down at midnight. There are some which are upen until 2, and a few until 4. And, as everywhere, make reservations in the “better” places. Seafood (not counting local freshwater fish) is generally very expensive and not worth the price.