Trouble With Toast

Vapiano–not for foodies?

July 26, 2007
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Last weekend, my boyfriend and I ventured to Vapiano, the new “fresh casual” restaurant at 18th and M Streets. A German chain (started, I believe, by a former McDonald’s franchise owner), the restaurant strives to combine hipness and affordability in a way that only those crazy Europeans can.

Here’s the hook: when you enter, you’re given a “chip,” which looks like a credit card and tracks your orders throughout the restaurant. Then, you are free to meander around the space, ordering food and drink from various stations. At the end of your journey, you bring your chip to the cashier to settle your tab.

When we visited, we started in the bar, where the happy hour specials were pretty enticing–$2.50 for draft beers (Pilsner Urquell or Peroni) and $2.50 for the house wines (both of which were pretty good, especially given the price). From there, we ordered pasta (pomodoro with spinach over linguine) and a pizza (prosciutto) and dug in. Was it the greatest meal of my life? Certainly not—but the pasta (which is made in-house) was fresh and the sauce/toppings were tasty, and the pizza crust was thin but not soggy. Not to mention we got out for less than $45, which included 6 drinks, the aforementioned food, and a large tip (there are no servers to speak of, but the employees pool all gratuities). On a Saturday night in DC, that’s nothing short of a miracle.

Quite pleased with the experience, I couldn’t wait to share the find with other DC food fans. Much to my surprise, however, there was already a lot of buzz about Vapiano in the blogosphere and on the message boards—and it was largely negative. Even worse, people who had never visited the restaurant were knocking it based solely on its cafeteria concept and price-point. In other words, the food snobs were on the attack.

Reading the naysayers’ comments got me thinking—is there a point at which your palate becomes so refined that you cannot eat “regular” food? Do true gourmands become so accustomed to all things haute cuisine that they cannot regress and appreciate the simplicity of a hearty, bargain-oriented meal? Or, does the lambasting of chains like Vapiano have less to do with taste buds and more to do with prestige and appearances and puffery?

I enjoy any opportunity to experience fine dining. I have been lucky enough to taste some truly incredible ingredients and to witness the genius of many of the country’s best chefs. But I have a pretty paltry paycheck, so I am constantly on the lookout for more modestly priced establishments at which to eat. Does eating at Vapiano mean that I don’t know food as well as someone who dines at The French Laundry or Le Bernardin every other month? Does enjoying my $7.75 pasta dish mean that I cannot also enjoy foie gras and Kobe beef?

I don’t know what makes a true epicure. All I know is that, while the world of gourmet cuisine and the world of fresh casual are vastly different, I’m sure glad that both worlds exist in Washington, DC.