The Regulars

Chocolate and cheese aside, Switzerland isn’t exactly a country for foodies. The dairy products may be the world’s finest; as I have mentioned before, the cheese is excellent and far more diverse than just the holey, slightly bitter image that comes to many American and other international minds when they hear “Swiss Cheese.” Milk chocolate was invented here, and Swiss fine chocolate, whether light or dark, can stand confidently by its claim to be the best in the world (take that, Belgium).

But Swiss cuisine isn’t going to attract many culinary tourists all by itself. Two of the most significant national dishes, fondue and Raclette, both consist almost exclusively of melted cheese, as if Swiss gastronomic heritage were invented by a latch key kid with access to a microwave. Other prominent Swiss mains include Rösti, which an American would recognize as hash browns and an Ashkhenazi Jew would find reminiscent of large, less eggy latke, typically served with fried eggs and sometimes with sausage or one of a few varieties of meat, like breakfast for dinner. The national breakfast of Müesli, meanwhile, consists of wet, raw rolled oats, usually soaked in yogurt or milk, typically with dried fruit or nuts. At its best, it is damp trail mix. At its worst, it is the world’s saddest oatmeal.*

Can Swiss food taste good? Sure, especially if you are not a vegan. Is it haute cuisine? Probably not.

Despite not having a food culture that attracts (or maybe deserves) a lot of attention, though, the Swiss have a vibrant, thriving sidewalk cafe culture. Even when it costs six bucks (at the hipster food hall not far from us, a double espresso, one of my tipples of choice, will set you back CHF5.50, US $5.92 at this morning’s exchange rates; I have paid as much as CHF6, which is a whopping US $6.48), the Swiss will drink a cup of coffee on the street with the best of them, and they’ll eat too. Even before Coronavirus times, which have pushed even more tables and chairs out onto the pavements, the Trottoirs and squares have always been loaded for many months each year with places to sit outside and consume something.

Our own street, which is a busy commercial strip but fewer than four full blocks long from the convention center at one end to the Rhine at the other, is home to more than a dozen venues that maintain tables outside. A lot of them are, perhaps predictably, bakeries and coffee shops; there are two just on our block that face off on opposite sides of the street, and a Starbucks has a similar showdown with a Dunkin’ Donuts just a little further down by a mall. At least one is a bar, one is a McDonald’s, and at least four are kebab shops, Germanic Europe’s favorite cheap, Turkish-inspired fast food joints (more about one of which below).

But many are garden-variety Swiss restaurants, offering Swiss restaurant food, in all its pan-European mediocrity. That means fondues and raclettes and Rösti may be featured prominently, but so too are foodstuffs borrowed mostly from heavier-hitting cuisines from all over the continent, especially Italy.** Pizza. Many pasta dishes, from penne to lasagna (these frequently nod to Swiss culture with cream sauces or local cheeses).

Many species of burger. Chicken cordon bleu is inexplicably popular. So too are locally beloved variations on dishes like schnitzel—two favorite schnitzel presentations in Switzerland include Schnipo, for Schnitzel mit Pommes, or schnitzel with fries, and its marginally more elaborate sibling Schniposa, which adds a salad. Schnitzel is undeniably tasty, and it is an internationally celebrated dish, of course, but it’s a product of Vienna’s cultural heritage, not Basel’s, and if we are being totally honest it is basically an enormous chicken nugget made of veal (or sometimes, albeit less traditionally, of chicken, which makes it just an enormous chicken nugget).

One of the strangest features of the Swiss restaurants on my street is the great surface similarity of most of their menus. One place bills itself as the Walliser Stube/Taverne Valaisanne, and the building and room are done up in an appropriately woody, rustic manner to simulate an inn you might find in the Alps in southern Canton Valais. As the weather has cooled, the fondue and raclette specials have come out, but regional specialties are few in number, and they serve pizzas and pasta too. Almost immediately across the street is the Hotel Rheinfelderhof, whose sidewalk restaurant is invariably popular, and whose menu overlaps with the Stube in most particulars, albeit featuring lasagne more prominently than the Walliser Stube’s favored spaghettis.

Along with their uniformity, another striking feature of these Swiss joints is their popularity—in fine weather, all of their tables are frequently packed, often by obvious regulars. I walk past multiple people again and again who clearly head to the same place just about every day, even if that place happens to be a Swiss restaurant. The regulars aren’t necessarily out to eat—many are just out for a cup of coffee or a drink—but they are out consistently and often.

A heavily tanned man, probably in his late 60s, usually with aviator sunglasses and a short-sleeved plaid shirt unbuttoned to his pectorals, and in hot weather, denim cutoffs, sometimes accompanied by his dog, takes a large bottle of beer every summer morning around eleven on the sidewalk outside Restaurant Holzschopf, which is located a block and a half toward the river on my street. It bills itself as a ‘Swiss Kitchen’ on some of its windows, and sticks Swiss flag toothpicks in its cordons bleues, but is run by a family of Turkish descent and has pictures of pizzas on the front door. I have seen him there at least a dozen times, but I’ve never seen him eat. Maybe he just doesn’t like Schnipo, or pizza. The Holzschopf sits on a corner, with sidewalk tables on both streets; Aviators always sits on the Clarastrasse side, while the other side (Claragraben) is frequently taken up by a group of late-middle-aged women from the Dominican Republic, at least two of whom are confirmed regulars, although one of them appears to double-time the restaurant with a separate group of middle-aged Dominican lady friends at the kebab shop or Indian supermarket takeaway around the corner.

A woman I would describe as a little old lady (she is quite small, although her age is really indeterminate; I can say for certain only that she has the short graying hairstyle popular among ladies over 70 in Switzerland, and she walks with the aid of a walker, albeit a walker that is sometimes laden with grocery bags, mail, or reading material, and thus functions more like a trolley) visits a sidewalk table at the Bistro Europe every afternoon, usually also with a dog, occasionally with another little old lady friend. Bistro Europe seems an odd choice for a preferred haunt to me, because it is the lobby restaurant attached to a Pullman Hotel. It doesn’t look like a bad restaurant, necessarily, and it clearly gets a good lunchtime crowd of men and women in suits eating overpriced pasta, but I assume almost all of those folks are staying at the hotel. Only the little old lady knows why she chooses a hotel bar as a regular destination when there are a literal dozen additional options within a few hundred steps, and at least three within twenty steps. Perhaps it’s because of the Pullman’s proximity to the tram stop (it’s about the closest sidewalk table to the transit point, although there’s an equally popular indoor venue in the coffeeshop/bar in the lobby of the adjacent Coop supermarket, which gets other blue-haired folks in for regular coffees and drinks), and maybe they’re just especially nice to her dog. When she’s with the pooch, she brings a water bowl on her walker, and I assume the waiters fill it for her.

They clearly know her well—as soon as she rolls in the waitstaff are quick with her order of choice, a large glass of draft beer, with a glass of ice cubes and a spoon on the side; she nurses the beer for a good long while, icing it as necessary to keep it cool, while she reads newspapers, sometimes does crossword puzzles, and smokes a lot of cheap Magnum cigarettes. When she brings her other little old lady friend with her they sometimes eat ice cream and drink coffee instead, or she switches to coffee when her beer is gone.

Watching the world go by from the Pullman Hotel next to the supermarket and the tram stop.

Lots of the Swiss places seem to serve largely as coffee shops; regulars are taking espresso or cappuccino or cafe crème at many of them at all hours of the day and evening (the Swiss do not have the same snobbery about taking milk coffee after noon that the French do; they are as a rule accepting of milk in the evening just as they are of beer in the morning). The aforementioned Rheinfelderhof Hotel restaurant has elaborate, if predictable, prix fixe menus every day, but a significant percentage of their patrons seem to be just drinking coffee.

One of my neighbors takes what appears to be an espresso nearly every day not from the sidewalk tables of one of the three Bäckerei-Konditorei on our block, always reliable sources of coffee and Gipfeli (the Swiss variation on the croissant, basically the same but bigger and sometimes with added whole grain or lye) or other pastries, nor from the Café-Bar two doors down next to the convention center, but from the kebab shop immediately next door to our building.

Kebab shops are almost hilariously ubiquitous in Basel—you’re never much farther than a block away from more than one. Although presentation and a few specialties will vary, the kebab places’ core menus are nearly as uniform as those of Swiss restaurants. They all offer döner kebap, shreds of a mixture of lamb and beef, or sometimes chicken, very similar to gyro or shawarma meat, in a large white breadroll topped with salad and spicy sauce and other dressings; or dürüm kebap, the same fillings in a huge tortilla-like flatbread wrap. Some offer Şis kebap, the grilled meat on a skewer an American would call shish kebab, or other Turkish grilled meat specialties, and burgers are not uncommon. And they all offer cheap pizza, pide, and lahmacun (two flatbread-based dishes both typically nicknamed “Turkish pizza,”) and typically an assortment of deep-fried snack foods—fries, chicken nuggets, falafel, fried calamari, schnitzels, and others. Pretty much anything affordable you can chuck from the freezer into a deep fryer is likely to be available. Most attract their own crowds of regulars, from lunchtime construction workers to late-night revelers coming out of bars, and I may forever wonder how one chooses where to pledge one’s allegiance given so many options—the kebab ecosystem may warrant its own future post.

The one downstairs from our apartment is deeply beloved by my kids, who eat its totally forgettable, but very cheap, pizza embarrassingly frequently. I’ve eaten a few of their kebabs, and they’re… OK, but noticeably not as good as many of their nearby competitors, and I had to forgo them when they stopped restocking Kebab Poulet, as I don’t eat beef or lamb. I’ve tried to get my kids to switch to one of the three others within a few blocks of us that have chicken or halloumi cheese kebabs and what I would consider higher-quality pizza, but no dice. The staff are invariably really nice, Jessica likes their spinach pide, and I’ve tried more than once to get takeout pizzas from them for the kids with someone else’s kebab hidden on me in a shopping bag, but the guilt weighs too heavily. And it is only about a minute from our apartment, mostly spent in the elevator. So like my downstairs, coffee-drinking neighbor, we are regulars (whether I like it or not).

But kebab places are not typically thought of as coffee shops, so I was a little surprised to notice that my neighbor had coffee there almost every day (she also takes a bottle of sparkling water sometimes, but I’m not sure if that’s after she’s already finished her coffee), until I realized that our kebab shop also has a high-end espresso machine behind the counter, and actually does a good business in espresso drinks at lower-than-cafe-prices when it’s not stuffing construction workers with kebabs, pizzas, or kebab-meat pizzas. So my neighbor from downstairs isn’t the only coffee-drinking frequent visitor; over this summer and last I have also noticed another regular from the building next door on the other side, a large curly-headed guy who also enjoys cheap local cigars.

So while the little old lady drinking iced beer at the Pullman’s motivations remain be a mystery to me, I’m pretty sure I understand my neighbors’ preference—it’s right downstairs, the coffee is quality, they save some money. So they’re regulars.

*In Müesli’s defense, there is also Knuspermüesli, or “crunchy müesli,” which is granola and totally fine.

**The argument can be made that Italian food is also Swiss food, given that the southern canton of Ticino is Italian-speaking and Italianesque, but people in Ticino call it Italian food.

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