Our First Look At Vapiano

Tim McCallum wants you to eat at Vapiano. Partly because he owns the place, but also because he really thinks it's great--which may again have something to do with the fact that he owns the place. But we don't want to get into one of those circular 'what caused the Civil War' arguments. Everyone knows it was slavery, but some people says states' rights. Of course, the southern states wanted the right to slavery, so...

We digress.

Just one trip to an outpost of the European "fresh-casual" chain in Berlin convinced McCallum to ditch his corporate gig and open up a few Vapianos back home. Now he's rolling with the first location in Texas--at Mockingbird Station--and several more are planned in coming years.

Whatever you might think of the strange 'chip card' ordering system, it's not a sterile, modern place. From olive trees growing smack in the middle of the airy dining room to Texas wine on the wine list, McCallum happily points out the many touches that make his restaurant unique.

But is it that cool?

Points in favor:

1. It looks good. And this is Dallas, so don't even act like that doesn't matter. Vapiano's interior is camera-ready, especially the racy red bar area decorated with Fellini-esque black and white prints.

2. They emphasize freshness. Sauces and pastas are made in-house. An estimated 1,000 herb plants are growing on the premises. Many dishes are also cooked to order right in front of you on space age-y magnetic burners that heat on demand. The pomodoro sauce we sampled was fresh and light and the fusilli it coated was not all mush-ay.

3. It's simple. Vapiano focuses on doing a few things and doing them well. The Italian menu of salads, pizzas and pasta (there's also antipasti) riffs on a single concept, rather than throwing together an overwhelming array of unrelated choices. And nothing's over $10.95.

4. They're nice...at least for now.

Points Against:

1. The chip card system. Customers use a credit card-like gadget to place orders at various stations in the restaurant. It's designed to simplify and personalize the experience, but we're not really sure how plastic and computer chips make things more personal. At the very least, it will take some getting used to.

2. Parking. It's Mockingbird Station, after all. Survive the garage designed by demonic architects and you might still face the perilous mismarked stairs to nowhere. Valets are available at peak times, however, so a couple of bucks will buy you out of the hassle.

3. The concept. Italian casual dining as conceived by Germans.

So...4-3 in favor. Not bad at all.

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