At the beginning of this year, Vapiano - a European-chic Italian chain restaurant - opened its doors in Glasgow. After much anticipation, it now sits just at the end of Buchanan Street, in a prime but strangely blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location due to the restaurant’s small, office-like entrance area.
Now, Vapiano isn't your ordinary restaurant: its gimmick, as many of you may know, is that it prides itself on mimicking the cafeteria-style dining experience of many eateries in Italy. The premise is quite simple: rather than a setup with various table sizes wherein you get your orders collected and served by wait staff, instead you are each given a small card on arrival. You then go up a flight of stairs, find your own table and use this card to go to approach the chefs and order what you would like from the menu.
I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to rate a restaurant based upon a gimmick that you will be aware of before you choose to eat there; whether or not this particular setup works for you is personal and circumstantial. What I will say, is that the setup certainly has its bonuses: you can eat at your own speed, you can watch your food being prepared, and you can avoid the passive-aggressive bill splitting situation. How Vapiano executes this premise, though, is questionable.
After entering an office-like reception area that feels more like the entrance to a building of snazzy new London offices than a restaurant, you’ll go up a flight of stairs to find yourself in the main restaurant, that seats over 200 people. The dining area is cafeteria-style in a way that, thankfully, doesn't feel like a school canteen. Still, the long oak tables and lack of any kind of decoration beyond the minimalist makes the space feel impersonal, which I’d hazard a guess wasn’t the intention for a chain that prides itself on mimicking authentic Italian eateries. The music is a strange choice, too - when we sat at our table, we noticed that Teenage Dream by Katy Perry was blaring from the speakers. Less Little Italy and more Pizza Hut, then.
I settled on bruschetta mozeralla for my starter, since it’s what I get at pretty much every Italian I go to. With a little incredulity, I saw that the cost of this starter was £6.79 - for comparison, this is almost double the prize of what you’d pay at, say, La Vita Spuntini. The novelty of watching my starter be prepared was nonexistent, since we simply watched a few scoopfulls of tomato taken from a plastic tub be uncerimoniously splattered onto some pale bread. The mozeralla was added in a similar fashion.
Still, bruschetta mozeralla isn’t really a dish that’s possible to get wrong, although Vapiano gave it their best shot. The bread was lukewarm and without flavour (added garlic wouldn’t have gone amiss), and the mozeralla was cold and overpowering as a result. Its saving grace was the balsamic vinegar, which we added ourselves. For £6.79, this really is pretty egregious.
The main was, thankfully, a different story. I chose the margherita pizza - a crowd pleaser - and it didn’t disappoint. The base was thin and crusted, the sauce tasted almost like the rich Italian flavour Vapiano is trying to emulate, and the amount of cheese was just right. My guest chose a meat-based pizza and expressed a similar sentiment: the main was what you’d expect from an Italian restaurant hoping to claim authenticity. The portions were also generous. For just £8.19, it wasn’t bad.
The desserts were another success, although overpriced and difficult Dolcis to get wrong in the first place. I chose the cioccolata bianca and my guest chose the bacio - the blended cream in both were delicious and not too rich, although the biscuit bases felt more like crumbs than an actual dessert base. Still, for £5.99, the small cup-sized desserts weren’t necessarily worth what you pay.
If you’re like me, and always want a drink from the bar when you go to a restaurant, then make sure you scan the menu carefully. In Vapiano, picking the wrong Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc could put you out £8.95 per regular size glass. As a whole, the prices at the bar are, to be blunt, a bit of a rip off.
The problem with Vapiano doesn’t lie within its gimmick; there was actually something inherently enjoyable about eating and drinking at your own pace. The problem, instead, is that it can’t be a chain restaurant serving chain-standing food but with extortionate prices. If you fancy a good pizza and a soft drink that you can eat and enjoy at your own pace in a relaxed environment, then Vapiano might be the place for you. But if you want a meal that doesn’t leave your pockets burning afterwards, I’d go elsewhere. All in all, Vapiano isn’t bad - but it’s cheeky for a chain, and not in an endearing Nando’s way.