On a wonderful weekend in Stockholm with 6 friends last summer we discovered an eaterie that I thought was just brilliant; Vapiano. Something that is almost unheard of - a high-quality and fast food Italian joint that doesn't break the bank. We visited Vapiano on our last day when all of us were feeling slightly delicate after a heavy weekend of drinking and were all suitably impressed.
On our return I googled the restaurant and found that this is a chain which began in Germany and they have worldwide locations - including two here in London.
I was determined to visit one of the London locations which are in Great Portland Street and Southwark and just a couple of weeks ago I finally made it and was again in awe of what is an almost unique and brilliant concept.
Vapiano works in a canteen-style fashion. On entering each person is given a card, and once a table is chosen you go to the various stations, order what you require and swipe the card. You then wait while the dish is cooked fresh before your eyes and in my case nosily converse with the various chefs.
I visited the Great Portland Street site and found there is a designated area for pizzas, around 10 stations for pasta and a whole area for salads.
Both in Sweden and London I opted for pasta and thought it was great you can choose from eight types according to your preference. There are a range of different sauces you can choose to go with your pasta.
The menu segregates certain dishes into groups a, b, c etc and each increases in price - however all offer excellent value for money. The pizza menu works exactly the same way. The lower price bracket is a tiny £6.10 and the highest is £9.10 - personally I think you'd struggle to get a decent bowl of pasta in central London for this amount.
On this occasion I had pappardelle with the 'scampi e spinaci' sauce which included king prawns, spinach and basil pesto in a creamy sauce. Very happily for me, engaging in conversation with the chef while he cooked my dinner, I mentioned that I enjoy spice a lot - so he added a chopped green chilli to my dish and I have to say it was excellent. I also had a tomato and mozzarella salad which was lovely, fresh and flavourful.
I dined with four friends but won't go into detail about their food - only to say that it was all eaten, and all enjoyed. The only minor complaint was that a couple of the dishes were excessively garlicy (something that has been happening to me a lot lately - see post on Les Deux Salons).
There's a very informal atmosphere in Vapiano and when we went on a Wednesday, early evening, it was absolutely jam-packed. The tables are mainly high with stools and each table is equipped with freshly growing basil, and an array of different oils.
For the value it provides the quality of food is excellent and I think the card system is great too. Each person pays their own individual bill on the way out - there's no awkwardness at the end of the meal with people scrutinising who might have had what, and no paying for any sneaky diners who never quite pay their way either. If particularly skint you could choose one of the Group A (£6.10) pastas or pizza and just have the frequently replenished water, if only to still be able to dine out with friends or family.
My meal included the most expensive bracket of pasta and the mozzarella salad - which is actually large enough to share between three as a side dish, as well as a large glass of white wine and I had change from £20. It's the type of restaurant you could eat in at the end of the month when funds are running extremely thin.
I can't understand why there aren't more Vapiano's about - judging from my experiences in both venues, they are far superior, and offer better value than the chains such as Bella Italia and the like that litter almost every high street.
If you haven't already, get yourself down to one of the Vapianos and try it for yourself. Judging from the crowds it 's here to stay and I for one hope it becomes the Italian-style equivalent to Nandos - a cheap yet powerful place to eat good, honest food and enjoy the company of friends. Sure, this isn't fine-dining by any stretch of the imagination but who is to suggest that frugal can't be fabulous.