The girl at the door tries to give me a credit card. "No thanks," I sigh. "I'm trying to give them up." She insists I take it. Without it, you won't be able to eat or drink, she says. Tell me about it.
Then she gives one to my wife, who promptly asks if she can buy shoes with it. No, only pasta, pizza, wine, puds and coffee. She brightens. "I can still do some damage with that," she says, and darts off.
The gimmick at Vapiano is that the credit card – or chip card as they call it – cuts out the role of waiting staff. Instead, you do all the running around yourself. You go to your chosen food station, swipe your card, collect your order when it's ready and pay at the end. Well, you can't complain about the service, at least.
It's a smart, modern idea, but in spite of the sleek urban space with its various seating areas, floating fireplaces and split-level bar/lounges, Vapiano still feels like an Italian self-service cafeteria. Probably because it is.
I'm still wandering around, admiring the industrial pasta machine whirring away behind glass and the brigade of red-bandana'd chefs standing on call behind the long counters, when my wife turns up with a huge platter of antipasti. "Where's our table?" Oh. I look around, but every table on the ground floor is taken. Of course it is; it's a weekday lunch.
We squeeze in next to two office boys eating pizza. The antipasti plate (£8.50) is a wedding buffet of things you think you want to eat until you actually eat them. Roasted vegetables are harsh with rosemary, mozzarella is lifeless, smoked salmon (smoked salmon?) and little crayfish tails (?) taste of little more than cold.
Next, I'm off to get water from the free jug on the counter. Then she's off to get pizza. Then I'm off to get pasta. The concept is not actually designed for people to eat together, and we agree to catch up over dinner at home instead.
This is the first Vapiano in the UK (the name means "go slowly", which sits somewhat awkwardly with the idea of fast food), and the British franchisees hope to "grow" the concept to 25 sites. There are already 21 branches in Germany and 13 others across Europe and the US. None in Italy, I notice.
There are engaging touches, such as pots of basil on the tables to raid for an instant garnish, "piazza seating" in the front window around a gnarled, old olive tree, and a "herb garden" in the vast first-floor space. But it is still a food court, pumping out greatest-hit pizzas (margherita, capricciosa, diavolo), pasta (Bolognese, arrabbiata, pomodoro) and antipasti (bruschetta, insalata Caprese, carpaccio). An all-Italian wine list is short, serviceable and well-priced, and a fresh, peachy keen La Battistina Gavi di Gavi is good value at £22 a bottle or £5.75 a glass.
When you order a pizza you are given a gizmo which will buzz and flash when it is ready. More fun and games. It's just the food that's not as much fun. Our Toscana pizza with salami, olives, tomatoes and mozzarella (£7.50) looks great – big, thin, and crisp-crusted – but it tastes of not much at all. The crust has no flavour, the olives ditto. The topping is heavy with rosemary, and includes that big pizza no-no: watery, diced fresh tomato.
Pasta is more interactive, cooked in a wok-shaped induction cooktop while you watch. You choose your pasta shape, then your sauce. A spaghetti arrabbiata with spicy tomato sauce (£5.50) is deftly put together, then sprinkled with pre-grated Parmesan. But the fresh pasta is too fresh, bypassing the al dente stage and going straight to mulchy and starchy before congealing. Dried pasta would be better, but doesn't fit the concept. And that's the problem, really.
In theory, this is fun, fast and cheap fodder for the office crowd. But in practice, nothing tastes of anything much. Like most dining concepts, Vapiano is more about the concept than the dining.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Vapiano, 19-21 Great Portland Street, London W1, tel: 020 7268 0080. Mon-Fri, 11am-midnight; Sat, noon-midnight; Sun, noon-11pm. Around £30 for two, including two glasses of wine
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
Second helpings: Pizzas with pizzazz
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