A coworker mentioned that when I go to Harbin I should check out the Robot Restaurant. I looked it up and found a few articles about this restaurant of the future where the food is prepared, and you are served, by a team of robots. “Well, I have to see that!” I thought. And so I did when my girlfriend and I had a few days in Harbin.
Toward the top end of bustling Central Street, we found a small gentleman 机器人 -“machine man”, aka robot, holding a sign reading “please come downstairs to have dinner.” Why, thank you sir, I think I will. Downstairs and inside was a much taller, much more intimidating robot with a motion censor facing the door. When anything moved in front of him he lit up and said in toneless Chinese, “welcome!” He makes a sweeping hand gesture for you to enter the restaurant while a gate arm in black and yellow caution tape raises.
The menu is posted on the wall and a waiter takes your order there. There are pictures of all the dishes with a note in the corner marking which ones are prepared by the robots and which are made by old fashioned humans. We looked over the menu for the best looking robot-prepared dish. “Welcome!” Lights. Bells. Whistles. Up went the gate arm. The motion censor’s range seemed quite wide. We ordered the twice cooked pork, some qingcai and two Harbin beers. “Welcome!” Lights. Bells. Whistles. Up went the gate arm.
The restaurant was empty except for a mother with two kids at one table. A human brought our beers to us and opened them. There were various robot wall stickers around with charming Chinglish dialogue bubbles. Some robot models and toys here and there. Some German movie posters for Bicentennial Man, I, Robot and Robocop on one wall. “No Photos” signs everywhere you looked. Which is appalling. That’s just plain old machine discrimination, pure cameraism, if you ask me. Oh I get it, is it because my camera’s black? I suspected they were about as serious as “No Smoking” signs are in China.
After about 10 minutes the doors to the kitchen opened. Out rolled what looked like a big trash can with a head and arms. It was holding a tray with our food on it. The human that brought our beers out walked alongside it the whole time. The mother with the two kids started cheering and clapping and pulled out an iPhone to take pictures of the robot as it rolled past them. I wanted to take pictures but the human walking next to our waiter did not exhibit a happy expression on his facial display, and man were there a lot of “No Photos” signs.
The machine stopped and the man removed the trays with his hands of veins, arteries, muscle, bone, skin, nail and hair and placed them in front of us. The waiter rolled around the tables, following a painted line on the floor, and disappeared into the kitchen. That was the last we saw of the waiter robots. There was one humanoid machine in the kitchen that was visible, but he didn’t seem to be on.
The food was surprisingly good. Nice job robot chef. “Welcome!” Bells. Whistles. Up went the gate arm. The flesh and blood greeter who took our order stumbled into the dining area and sat across the table from the other human who used his hands to put the food on our table. Blue light bathed their faces as they played with their phones. The mother with the two kids and their phones left and not long after, we did, too. “Welcome!” Bells. Whistles. Up went the gate arm.
If you find yourself at the Robot Restaurant in Harbin, go during the lunch or dinner rush, as it’s probably much more fun with lots of the little guys running about.
(I’d love to show you some pictures but the day after I returned to Beijing my apartment was broken into and the camera was stolen.)