Soggy Dough, Frustrating Waits And An Utterly Painful Experience At This Manchester "Hot Spot"
When will the invasion of chain restaurants end?
Going to an Italian restaurant should be an experience filled with excitement and joy as you pile huge plates of carbs into your mouth forgetting about all the healthy eating and promises you've made to yourself in the past.
An Italian meal should be Italian waiters shouting across the room at each other and a pizzaiolo in the corner flipping huge wheels of dough into the air then firing them into a 400C oven. In the great Italian restaurants like Rudy's the food is simple, affordable and the service cheery and stripped back to basics.
Craving all of the above and running to a meeting I thought I'd pop into Vapianos in the Corn exchange. I was fully aware that it was a chain but wanted something quick, tasty and Italian after missing breakfast.
The problems started as soon as I walked in the door. It felt like walking into a cross between a McDonald's and IKEA and when the lovely receptionist asked if "we knew how the system worked?" I knew we were in trouble. I mean I've been eating in restaurants for 37 years and think like most people I've a very good idea of how they work and always worry when a new "concept" has to be explained to me.
What they are going for here is that you watch the food "get cooked in front of you". It seems to work as this German company has 120 of these restaurants around the world including 60 in Germany itself.
Maybe the problem was that I wasn't German enough because getting lunch involved standing in line politely, following a very specific process and other little quirks like paying using a credit card type swipe you are handed as you walk in. There are also no waiting staff so you order direct from the chefs and alcoholic drinks come from another cart completely.
If you come with a dining partner or worse still a group you'll end up walking around aimlessly trying to figure it all out and get fed while feeling you are in a quasi modern restaurant mixed with a school canteen.
If the set-up is bad then the food is worse. I watched two pasta dishes getting cooked in front of me. In fairness the Carbonara was superb. The ravioli on the other hand was chewy, undercooked and in a limp watery sauce that was meant to be Arrabiata but was in fact somewhere halfway between tomato juice and water.
While the pasta was hit and miss the pizza was a gigantic miss. They'd piled it with so much choppped tomato, crappy meat and overcooked cheese that the whole think was a limp mess. Only the crust was crunchy and when you went to pick it up the pizza pretty much shat itself requiring me to make a beeline for the napkin stand.
There are some great chain restaurants out there - Turtle Bay springs to mind for knowing what they do and delivering a great product. In general though there are too many. Chains might have great portion control and gross profits and look good to their owners on a spreadsheet but they do nothing for the overall local restaurant scene.
If I never walk into another Vapiano's in my life again it will be too soon.