One of the lovely things about Sherlock Holmes is that there is at least one place he dined where his followers could always dine as well. Simpson's was the first choice of Sherlock Holmes after a long fast in "The Advenure of the Dying Detective," as well as a place where he could meet Watson while looking out at the passing London streetlife on the Strand in "The Illustrious Client." Other restaurants have not been so lucky.
This thought crossed my mind this morning when I stumbled across the Hiltl Restaurant, the "oldest continuously open vegetarian restaurant in the world." Its claim to fame is based upon its opening in Zurich, Switzerland in 1898.
"Wait a minute," I thought. "Wasn't there a vegetarian restaurant near Saxe-Coburg Square in 1890?"
Well, I didn't exactly think that exact thought -- more like "Wasn't there a vegetarian restaurant in 'The Red-Headed League' which was published in something like 1891, and I should look that up in my chronology . . . oh, it occurred in 1890." But writing that all out doesn't quite flow as nicely, so one wonders why I just did it. Probably because this topic doesn't have much meat to it, in more ways than one.
Anyway, here's the lovely words of Sherlock Holmes from that case:
"I should like just to remember the order of the houses here. It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London. There is Mortimer's, the tobacconist, the little newspaper shop, the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, the Vegetarian Restaurant, and McFarlane's carriage-building depot. That carries us right on to the other block. And now, Doctor, we've done our work, so it's time we had some play. A sandwich and a cup of coffee, and then off to violin land, where all is sweetness, and delicacy, and harmony, and there are no red-headed clients to vex us with their conundrums."
There has always been a question of whether or not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had their sandwich and coffee at that nearby Vegetarian Restaurant on that October day in 1890. What we do know, however, is that it did exist a full eight years before the Hiltl opened up in Switzerland.
Finding history's first vegetarian restaurant is a trickier proposition. Wikipedia will even tell you that London didn't see its first "successful" vegetarian restaurant until 1961. England had its share of vegetarians throughout the 1800s, and religious vegetarianism was around in other countries long before that. But a vegetarian restaurant?
I find it hard to believe that the one Sherlock Holmes spoke of in "The Red-Headed League" was the first of its kind, but our Sherlock was a cutting-edge sort of fellow. He surely experimenting with vegetarianism's effect on his mental faculties at some point.
These days, the world even has vegetarian McDonald's in India, so that little place near Saxe-Coburg Square might have fared better and not disappeared. But at the time? Perhaps it needed a location that was not quite so hard to find.