Breakfast spreads in Switzerland tend to include coffee, and a selection of bread, marmalade, lunch meat, and local cheese. If you prefer a lot of milk in your coffee, ask for a renversé in French (literally, upside-down) or a Milchkaffee in German. Increasingly popular in German-speaking Switzerland is the latte macchiato, steamed milk with espresso but very little foam, or the cappuccino, lots of steamed and foamy milk with espresso. The signature Bircher muesli—invented by Dr. Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner at his diet clinic at the end of the 19th century—is available in most supermarkets (such as Migros and Coop) and can make a hearty breakfast or lunch, especially when served with plain or fruit yogurt instead of milk.
Many restaurants close after lunch (as of 3 pm) and reopen for dinner (about 6 pm). In remote regions it may prove difficult to find kitchens open past 9 or 10 pm, so plan ahead. It's not unusual for restaurants to close on Sunday; those in Ticino may close for the entire month of August, while resort restaurants may close for a month in the late spring and fall. Bars generally close at 1 or 2 am, although clubs continue serving into the wee hours.
For lunch or dinner, most regions offer cheese specialties. Remember when eating these tasty dishes that you tend to be full before your brain registers the fact, and the fatty cheeses can result in difficult digestion. Fondue (literally, "melted" in French) originated in the western part of Switzerland and comes in regional varieties, of which the fondue moitié-moitié is the most famous (combining equal portions of Gruyère and Vacherin). Bits of white bread are skewered on long, thin forks and twirled in the melted cheese. Anyone losing his or her piece of bread has to perform some small activity as "penance," like singing a song, or paying for the next round. The grilled cheese remaining in the bottom of the caquelon is known as the religieuse ("the nun") and is a favorite.
The other big cheese specialty is raclette from the canton of Valais. Traditionally, the cut surface of half a cheese wheel is exposed to a fire and the melted cheese is consistently scraped off (racler means "to scrape") and eaten with boiled or baked potatoes, pickled white onions, and other condiments. Another cheesy dish is a Malakoff, a dome-shaped chunk of Gruyère that is pressed onto a piece of toast and then deep-fried. You may order only one Malakoff at a time (which may be a blessing in disguise to those who tend to bite off more than they can chew).
Aid your digestion with a crisp wine or a shot or two of kirsch, a popular, colorless cherry digestif—a nip at the midway point and again once you are finished can help soothe your overtaxed stomach. Some fondue experts recommend washing these heavy cheese dishes down with hot black tea and not drinking too much while eating.
There are other fondues that are not so "cheesy." Fondue bourguignonne involves dipping bits of meat (veal, beef, chicken, or even horse) in hot oil. The lighter "Chinese" variation (fondue chinoise) features meat, fish, and vegetables cooked in bouillon. The boiled or fried tidbits are then dipped in an array of condiments. There is also a sweet fondue, with fruits dipped in a melted chocolate sauce.
On a lighter note, the French-speaking cantons pride themselves on filets de perche (fried perch fillets), possibly the most popular dish in the region. A few variations on the theme exist—some with herbs or cognac sauce—but the traditional version is served with lemon and french fries on the side. German-speaking Switzerland made its mark in culinary history with the ubiquitous Rösti, a grated potato pancake—often spruced up with herbs, bacon, or cheese—that is served with nearly any meat or sausage. Competing with Rösti for most popular side dish, Spätzle (egg-flour dumplings) continue to be fashioned according to age-old local traditions (though the toss-in-boiling-water-and-serve packets have a strong following).
Ticino, to the south, has preserved its penchant for Italian cuisine with a simple touch that reflects the former poverty of the region: risotto, gnocchi, polenta, and pasta dishes appear on most menus. Graubünden has its own set of specialties, also harking back to its regional history as a canton cut off from the world during the winter months. In Capuns, Maluns, and Pizzokels, you are likely to encounter a variety of stews and sausages. Classics such as truite meunière (trout rolled in flour, fried in butter, and served with lemon and parsley) are also standard fare.
Children's menus are available in many restaurants around Switzerland; otherwise, you can usually request a child-size portion and the prices will be adjusted accordingly.
Credit cards are widely accepted. Euros are also often accepted, though change will come in Swiss francs. Note that service is included unless indicated on the menu. It is customary to leave a small tip in cash (up to 10% depending on how pleased you are with the service).
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. We only mention them specifically when reservations are essential (there's no other way you'll ever get a table) or when they are not accepted. For famed restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Quality and diversity are the hallmarks of Swiss wine, celebrated in annual festivals where everyone samples the year's harvest. They may not be widely exported, but Swiss wines are generally available in restaurants, and you can also get to know them in wine cellars (often with delicious local cheese). All of Switzerland's 23 cantons produce wines, but six areas outdo the rest: Valais, Vaud, Geneva, the Three Lakes region in western Switzerland, the German-speaking region of eastern Switzerland, and Ticino. Chasselas is by far the most successful among white grapes, and Pinot Noir among the reds. Other top white-grape varieties include Müller-Thurgau and Sylvaner; reds feature Gamay and Merlot.
Switzerland counts more than 400 registered breweries that produce lager, Spezialbier (slightly stronger and a touch more bitter than lager), and Festbier (strong, dark holiday beer produced at Easter and Christmas and sometimes sold as Bockbier or Märzenbier). Specialty beers include the amber Altbier, the corn-infused Maisbier, and Weizenbier (wheat beer).
Switzerland is brimming with spirits—most notably kirsch (cherry spirit) from Zug and the Lake Luzern region,which has gained worldwide recognition. Plums are used to make Zwetschgenwasser. The tiny damassine plum, supposedly brought back from Damascus by a crusading knight, is distilled into the delightfully fragrant Damassine, available in Saignelégier. The many apple spirits include Träsch and Gravensteiner; pears and apricots from the Valais give their spirit to the redolent Williamine and Abricotine. A unique variety of grappa is up for grabs in the grottoes of Ticino; this potent firewater gets its name and taste from the skins of the grape. Prohibited for 90 years until 2005, absinthe is a specialty of the Val de Travers in western Switzerland, the spirit's birthplace.