When you enter (after passing the cheesy velvet ropes) you're handed a "chip card" that looks pretty much like a SmarTrip card. You then head to one of the food stations to peruse the menu and place your order. They have stations for pasta, pizza, and salad, as well as a large bar area. You place your order directly with the chef and they cook your food while you watch. Once your order is ready, you scan your chip card and it keeps track of what you've ordered. You can move from station to station, ordering what you'd like, and scanning your card as you go. After your meal, you present your card to the cashier at the front and pay your bill. Each person in your party will be handed their own chip card, making splitting the check easy.
Once you have your food, you can take a seat at one of the communal-style tables (complete with herb gardens in the middle) or in the lounge area near the bar. While I thought the concept was unique, there were a couple of downsides. First, the plants on the table were a neat idea but there were lots of little flies buzzing around, which isn't exactly what you want while you're eating. Second, we were confused about where to get water (the bartender) and to-go boxes (one of the chefs behind the pasta station). We would have benefited from someone walking the floor and answering questions rather than us having to wander about indefinitely until we found someone to ask.
So, is Vapiano all about the gimmicky concept or does the food make it worth a visit? We both thought our dishes were good, but nothing amazing. Since many of the dishes are customizable, it could be our fault for not ordering anything unique. I tried the Arrabiata Pasta with campanelle (a fun bell-shaped pasta). It was really spicy thanks to the heavy dose of red thai chilis. Nothing to complain about, but nothing so memorable that I'll be running back to try this dish again.
B tried the Granchi De Fiume (fettuccine, crayfish, lobster sauce, and fresh vegetables) which was packed with fresh veggies and topped with a healthy dusting of parmesan cheese. Another solid dish, but nothing that knocked our socks off.
Overall, I think Vapiano is worth a visit if only to grab a drink and to check out the unique card concept. We both think that it would be a fun first date place because of its casual yet kind of fancy atmosphere. We visited the Penn Quarter location, but if you tend to stick toward the Dupont Circle side of town, there is a Vapiano at 18th and M.
PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY B!
Second Thoughts from B
Usually J and I are on the same page but I think my impression of Vapiano differs from hers on this one. To be clear, I don't disagree with her review of the food. The flavors were solid, though nothing spectacular, the portions were generous, and the prices appropriate. However, I'm a lot more excited about this addition to our city's culinary repertoire. We have plenty of cheap eats and plenty of fine dining options, but we're lacking in the mid-range casual sitdown restaurant area, and I believe Vapiano fits the bill perfectly.
Often times when you're out with a group of friends and the meal isn't the focal point of the night, you need a place that is centrally located, not too expensive, and with a menu flexible enough to accomodate everyone. It is no surprise that Vapiano can be found in Dupont and Chinatown for this very reason. At least for me, I'll be adding it to my shortlist of suggestions for the next time I'm charged with leading a hungry, yet indecisive group.