The Best High-Altitude Dining

The Best High-Altitude Dining

la montagne

Claude Hervé-Bazin
Winter 2020-2021

It’s true: some people come to Zermatt just for the food. Zermatt itself is famous for its gastronomy and the same goes for its high-altitude restaurants, many of which are recognized by Gault&Millau or the Michelin guide. There are around 50 different high-altitude mountain huts, stübli, restaurants, bars, and buffets that offer skiers, sledders, and hikers a much-needed break in one of the Alps’ most beautiful locations. Open from late November or early December to mid-April, this mix of traditional mountain chalets and modern establishments (as high as 3,883 m!) often have views of the Matterhorn and a chorus of other ice-capped peaks, in addition to fabulous food and ambiance.

The comforting warmth of a historic chalet
Those looking for a touch of nostalgia will find it deep in the Alps, near Findeln, Riffelalp, and Furi (1,867 m). Some make the journey by foot (45-60 min), while others take the Matterhorn Express, floating gently over the frozen white forests and alpine pastures. Here, in the heart of the Mattertal Valley, lies Zermatt: the crossroads of the region’s mechanical ski lifts and many exceptional dining tables. There’s the Silvana Hotel’s cosy Gitz-Gädi, where diners are delighted with rösti, fondue, charcuterie, lamb, or even goat in the company of a rustic fireplace. There’s also Simi, where another fireplace welcomes diners for expertly blended traditional and contemporary cuisine that’s accompanied by impeccable service. Or even Les Marmottes, where one can savour beef from Valais (with a pine mousse) or ibex ravioli (hunted by the owner himself!). And don’t forget Aroleid Kollektiv, sustainably run by a young couple known for their creative cuisine (with vegetarian and vegan options), along with their pottery and barista classes.

One of the main routes connecting Furi and Zermatt passes through the small hamlets of Blatten and Zum See, which are each home to a renowned restaurant. The picturesque Zum See, with its aged patina exterior and magnificent terrace (complete with  a view of the Matterhorn), was awarded 14 points by Gault&Millau for its high-quality, hyper-local cuisine, which expertly blends mountain classics and fine dining with dishes like veal-liver and homemade pasta, or rösti with smoked salmon on Sundays. Meanwhile, the Blatten is family-owned-and-operated by Leander and Simone Taugwalder. And if "Taugwalder" rings a bell, it’s because Peter Taugwalder was the first to summit the Matterhorn in 1869, and, oddly enough, this establishment’s owner-couple met while climbing that very same mountain! The menu here could not be more traditional with one surprising speciality: Porcini mushroom soup, served with a delicate, puff pastry crust. In winter, there’s fondu every Wednesday and a snow bar that opens in February.

Near the Moos-Trail, Alm specializes in homegrown trout (grilled, with almonds, poached, in salad, etc.), and ten minutes on foot from Riffelalp, is the 100% stress-free Ritti, with its heavy flagstone roof and micro-terrace hidden amongst the trees. Menu highlights include rösti and an exceptional fondue.

On the other side of the Zmuttbach River, away from the lifts, lies the traditional snow-covered village of Z’mutt. Here one can find the modest Jäger Stube, which serves robust, hyper-local meals. Walk another 30 minutes to find Stafelalp (2,200 m), known for its large and modern sun-filled dining room (entirely rebuilt after a fire) and its beautiful terrace with impressively close (the closest you can get!) views of the Matterhorn. Although it’s in one of the region’s most isolated ski areas, it can be easily reached on the #52 red slope. From there, the Hirli chairlift quickly gets you to the Schwarzee (2,583 m) hotel-restaurant, which more than guarantees exceptional views.

Charming alpine chalets can also be found near Findeln along the #5 blue route. This former mayen is now one of the station’s most renowned gourmet destinations, with two must-see restaurants that were both awarded 14 points by Gault&Millau. Chez Vrony, perhaps the most famous of the two, shines a spotlight on creative and often organic products from Valais (like their homemade charcuterie). Their chill-chic ambiance features fur-covered lounge chairs on the terrace and an interior designed by Zermatt architect and artist Heinz Julen. There’s also Findlerhof, which famously flies an iconic Swiss flag over its gigantic, panoramic terrace. It’s known for its offbeat spirit, the warm welcome provided by its owners Franz and Heidi, its truffle ravioli, its quiche, and its gargantuan Matterhorn rösti dish. Those arriving on skis must first drop their gear at the small, white chapel, then descend by foot.
Three other high-altitude restaurants deserve a visit: Adler Hitta (very "chill and grill," with occasional live music, and a summer jacuzzi), Enzian, and Paradise (recently acquired by Vrony).

What about Riffelalp? There, set your sights on the Italian restaurnat Al Bosco, found inside the panoramic (and very chic) 5-star Riffelalp Resort (2,222 m). Its extra-large terrace is usually frequented by skiers tackling the Riffelberg red ski run. Slippers for inside the resort are provided.

What about the Italian side?
Here, it’s difficult to escape the espresso break… assuming you have your travel documents (and a few Euros) in your pocket. Just after crossing the ridge, the Aosta Valley-style fondu, ravioli, risotto, ossobuco, polenta, and, of course, tiramisu, from Bontadini beckons. Surrounded by sweeping, panoramic terraces at 3,100 m, at the foot of the southern face of the Matterhorn and the Furggen ridge, this locanda-style restaurant also has a high-quality self-service area. A bit lower (2,750 m), above Plan Maison, lies the almost legendary Chalet Étoile, which has been run since 1974 by Swedish chef Ulla Frassi and her Italian husband Cesare. The menu is an Italian-Swedish fusion of farmer’s market ingredients that’s simultaneously elegant, surprising, and delicious.

As close to the summit as possible
At even higher altitudes, the ZBAG lifts provide access to every station and stopover where one can eat. One of the best stops at Rothorn (3,103 m) is the wooden Ristorante Pizzeria, which boasts incredible Alpine views. At the Blauherd station (3,103 m), the Blue Lounge is known for its flammkuchen (an Alsatian tarte flambée), but one should consider continuing on to Fluhalp (2,620 m), a sturdy and welcoming mountain hut built in 1930s, which can be reached from the red Rotweng or from Rothorn. The menu includes memorable Valais dishes like pasta and mouth-watering homemade tartes, which are sure to bring a smile to your face as you soak in the ambiance and the seasonal live music.

If you go even higher, taking the Trockener Steg cableway and the Furggsattel chairlift, you reach Gandegghütte. At 3,030 m, and with one of the most beautiful views of the Alps, this ex-mountain hut was transformed into a restaurant-bar overlooking the Théodule glacier. Every year (almost), it welcomes the world’s highest altitude music festival: Unplugged. Gandegghütte’s local specialities are known for refreshing weary travellers, and best of all, you can even stay the night and be the first on the slopes the next morning.
Now, if that’s still too close to earth for you, continue on until you reach Klein Matterhorn and have breakfast at Matterhorn glacier paradise (3,883 m)- it’s truly a special treat to dine at the highest altitude restaurant in Europe!