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How much should you tip a robot?
Dining out while keeping the distance.
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Here’s a little pandemic game you can play if you’re bored and hungry one day, and looking for a reason to leave the house.
Go out on the town for a full hot meal — main, coffee and dessert — without coming within six feet, or 46 Timbits, of another human.
It’s easy enough with the contactless restaurants and next-level vending machines that have proliferated recently, from automated pizza ovens to cake ATMs. (Both are better than vending machine pizza and cake ought to be, but still fall short of the “real” thing.)
But I was curious about two of the newest entries on the scene, which both claim to be Canadian firsts.
Dark Horse’s Coffee Automat — “Canada’s first robotic cafe” — which opened at 1235 Bay Street in Yorkville in September, is where my antisocial dining quest began.
Mjolk’s retro luxe design for the location is stunning. Soft jazz is playing, and you’ll want nothing more than to step inside and sit at one of the mid-century modern tables and enjoy your hot robot-brewed beverage.
As the first outpost of a concept Dark Horse plans to expand nationwide by the end of 2021, they’re aiming for wow, and they deliver.
Sadly it’s just a curated window display, and you can’t actually step inside. So that moment of wow is followed by one of disappointment.
Instead of sheltering from the cold, you walk up to a wood-panelled, floral-patterned kiosk to place your order (or pre-order on your phone), which you can customize with decaf, milk, oat milk and cane sugar.
I order a cortado with one lump of sugar, and then stand there waiting to see something like this:
But there’s only a small window on the kiosk and the glare makes it hard to peek at the robotic wonders inside. I can sort of make out some brewing and frothing action amid the mechanical parts behind the glass, before a small door slides open and my beverage is ready.
It’s an altogether refined experience, but when you’re promising a robotic barista, shouldn’t you go the full Futurama?
In any case, the real test is in the taste, and that’s where there’s no compromise, no acrid aftertaste of WD40, silicon shavings or soiled dreams. In three visits, I’ve had three perfectly brewed, balanced cups, made exactly to order — a better batting average than I tend to have with human baristas.
Though the foam heart shown in the menu never materializes.
Try it for yourself. Dark Horse is offering two free coffees at the automat before Dec. 15 if you sign up here.
For lunch we’re off to Box’d by Paramount — “Canada’s first fully automated restaurant” — which, like Dark Horse, has been testing out its concept in a high-traffic area, this one at Yonge and King Sts., before a planned 2021 expansion. (It beat out a similar concept, Cubby Smart Kitchen, by a few months.)
Again, you can order ahead of time on your phone or at an in-store kiosk. Your meal will be ready about 15 minutes after ordering. And that’s when the magic happens.
Walk up to the wall of cubbies and find your name on one of the digitized windows. Tap twice on the glass and it opens for you to retrieve your meal.
It certainly feels futuristic. But did a robot do this? Not quite. Again, like the automat, there’s a window here that lets you peek behind the curtain, and here you can see a kitchen with actual chefs preparing your meal. When it’s done they slide it into a cubby on the kitchen side of the digital wall, so you never have to face another person in the transaction — good news for germaphobes, misanthropes and introverts. (Me, me and me.*)
The Middle Eastern “inspired” menu is considerably more playful here than its parent chain Paramount Fine Foods. Hummus options include black truffle, beetroot, spinach and mango, while wraps include spiced chicken, kafta, chimichurri striploin and portobello. On one day I order an orzo box with spiced chicken and beet hummus; another day I get the portobello wrap. Both are hearty, well-spiced (though slightly over-salted) and make for an excellent takeout lunch.
Grab it and get out fast before another human arrives. You’ve achieved contactless service. If only you could do something about other customers.
*Kidding. I’m no germaphobe.
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Stay safe, and don’t eat the Timbits.