347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, VIC

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Collect your own food at Vapiano.
Collect your own food at Vapiano. Photo: Eddie Jim

Larissa Dubecki

It's known in the biz as a "famil" – a familiarisation exercise, aka a freebie jaunt in which a bunch of journalists are flown to, say, a Queensland resort, wined and dined and put up in some nice accommodation (please, don't worry about the minibar account), following which they will presumably write some nice things about what a nice place it is.

Naturally enough the practice has metastasised into the restaurant trade. Food writers and bloggers are routinely invited to pretend they need a new eatery's "concept" explained to them over a free dinner. It's difficult to imagine a restaurant so conceptual it needs a middleman to explain it – maybe if Ferran Adria decided to open a bacon bar on Mars – and sure enough it proves true with Vapiano, a 100-strong restaurant "concept" invented by a German McDonald's franchisee.

Despite declining repeated offers of a famil, I can tell you this: Melbourne's is the third Vapiano on home soil, the idea imported by an Australian businessman who planted his first flags in Queensland. Like McDonald's, which was once revolutionary in its own right, Vapiano offers the same menu whether in Berlin or Brisbane. A chip card replaces the need for waiters. You order from one of the red-bandana-wearing cooks, swipe your card, wait for the order and carry it back to your table. Expect to repeat the process at the bar, at the pizza counter (here you get a buzzer to summon you back when it's ready), antipasti counter, pasta counter etc.

The pasta is made-here.
The pasta is made-here. Photo: Eddie Jim

It's German efficiency applied to an American concept with an Italian heart. Expect to see more of it. Sydney's Kitchen by Mike and our own Red China have shown making diners work for their meal isn't necessarily divorced from enjoyable good-quality grub, but Vapiano is to Italian food as the Ikea caff is to Swedish. Put it this way: whoever orders a caprese salad in winter deserves the insipid tomatoes that defy their vibrant-red looks to taste of precisely nothing. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.

The fitout is 21st-century canteen. The broad first-floor space is decked out with oak share tables and chairs, a distressed olive tree providing a centrepiece, the tables kitted out with pots of fresh herbs for the plucking. It's designed to drive the fresh message home, an illusion that ends with the antipasti, an impressive wooden paddle littered with foodstuffs that taste of little more than fridge.

Go to Rosa's Kitchen to see how good real Italian antipasti can be, as opposed to this depressing collection of overdone/undercooked roasted/marinated vegetables, personality-free meats, very ordinary slices of what's simply billed as "parmesan" and sun-dried tomatoes. Remember them?

The carpaccio comprises tissue-thin slices of mushy beef stuck to a fridge-cold plate. These are topped with raw slices of button mushroom and parmesan, an undressed lump of rocket and some squiggles of mildly tangy mayo.

The pasta's fresh. You can see them making it on an impressive industrial machine behind glass, and the clever induction cooktops using wok-like contraptions means it's ready in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, garlic and onion don't cook quite as fast. Crunch, crunch. The ravioli stuffed with bolognese paste are actually quite tasty, although the tomato cream sauce inexplicably contains carrot sticks and spring onion.

The idea of topping a pizza with prosciutto, fig and honey – seasonality aside – quite appealed. The crust is chewy, the base cardboard-esque, the topping – including a thin smear of tomato sugo – desultory. It's $20.90. Pause to reflect that the same money would buy a pizza at Ladro.

The service is laughable. I don't just mean my own. Empty glasses pile up in between visits to the bar for water refills or another stab at the short, unremarkable wine list. Plates are cleared once – just before the pizza buzzer goes off, which is a nuisance. Off to find some replacements while my pal minds the bags. No chance of a good bitch session when we're so busy retrieving plates, waiting for food, tag-teaming across the joint.

By our last sortie to the bar for a set cheesecake coated in a lurid yellow layer of medicinal-tasting lemon substance, it's perfectly clear Vapiano is just one big conversation interruption. In our Italian-hearted town, you can do so much better than eating here. But if eat here you must, make sure it's with people you don't like.


The best bit Fresh herbs on the tables
The worst bit
 Everything else
Go-to dish 
Ravioli bolognese, $18.90
Wine list Short, pedestrian
We drank Burchino chianti (Tuscany, Italy) $10.50/$49.50
Service Non-existent
Value Poor
Noise Subdued
Parking Street or paid
Bookings Only for 10 or more

Twitter: @LarissaDubecki, or email: ldubecki@fairfaxmedia.com.au


How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.


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347 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, VIC

  • Cuisine - Italian
  • Prices - Typical starter $13.90, pasta and pizza $18.90, main $20.90
  • Features - Licensed, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options
  • Owners - Will Cooke
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
  • Opening Hours - Sun-Thurs, 11am-11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-1am
  • Author - Larissa Dubecki
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19 comments so far

  • I am baffled why this place even scored 10/20 if it was this bad? By that system, the local KFC would get at least 12 then?

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 8:41AM
    • Yes this score makes no sense - where did the 10 points come from, if service is non-existent and the food is bad?

      Date and time
      August 06, 2013, 12:41PM
    • Ten seems to be a starting point, a bit like a modern kid's school report.

      Date and time
      August 06, 2013, 1:20PM
  • Trends suck. This and the no bookings trend need to go.

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 12:20PM
  • I ate at this restaurant on Saturday night, and I feel this review was a bit harsh.
    I think it depends on what you are looking for. I was there with a group of 12, and the set up at this place really suited a group of that size.

    Their billing system of giving each guest a card to swipe as they order, allowed us to easily pay for just what we each ordered, and eliminated messy bill splitting.

    The table set up meant that we could all be seated close to each other and were still able to chat across our 2 booths, so no one was left at the end of the table, out of the conversation.

    We all loved the decor, and the fact that the food was made as we watched, and could be easily customised. The food was not 5 star, but it was cerainly better than a standard local italian restaurant. It tasted fresh (not drowning in loads of oil, or a heavy tasteless sauce) and we all found it to be quite enjoyable. No raw garlic or onions found in any of our dishes! Most people were happy with the portion sizes as well.

    If you are looking for a reasonably priced, quick Italian meal in the city with a large group, I would recommend this place.

    Nosh Bourne
    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 12:54PM
  • It's China Red- not Red China.

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 1:17PM
  • Agree with Nosh Bourne.. The review is a bit harsh ... Perhaps the reviewer cannot handle the idea of basic food cooked to your order in front of you in simple open plan restaurant.. Works a treat for us.. We dined a number of times in a Vapiano in Stockholm and enjoyed the experience there also. Not everyone want to dine in grand style all the time

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 1:28PM
  • Awesome review! I absolutely hated the place.
    I have visited Vapiano only once. When paying for my meal, the cashier asked me how everything was. My answer was 'disappointing.' The only thing she could say back to me was 'that will be $18.90.'
    I wanted to scream back '$18.90 for vegetarian pasta? You must be kidding!' But what would be the point??!! Avoid at all costs!

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 1:58PM
    • What were you expecting to pay for a freshly cooked meal in a restaurant on Flinders Lane? This is Melbourne, one of the most expensive cities in world. I paid close to the same amount last week for three slices of banana bread and a coffee in a cafe for breakfast. If you don't like the prices then maybe you should live somewhere in Southeast Asia.

      Date and time
      August 06, 2013, 6:17PM
  • I've read the review and had a think about this one. Vapiano's in Brisbane City is just up from my office and has become a semi regular spot for meeting a mate for lunch, or a quick dinner after work.

    Yes, the service is non existent, though the chip card idea works well when a group of you go for lunch. The food is ok, its not brilliant, but its fresh, tasty and good. Yes I have had far better Italian, I have also had far worse and paid more.

    You need to take this place for what it is, simple mass dining that caters to people who want fresh, reasonably tasty food that you can do quickly on an in and out basis, and is reasonably priced (not cheap, not expensive). On this score it works.

    Is it a location for a date NO, is it a location for catchup with friends / workmates, yes.

    Date and time
    August 06, 2013, 2:01PM

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