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The Robots Do Lunch

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— September 15, 2018

The Robots Do Lunch

  • Boston's Spyce is one of the country's first fast-casual restaurants where robots control the action.
  • By Poornima Apte
pocket

STRAY A LITTLE FROM Boston’s popular Freedom Trail and you might wander into Spyce, a restaurant attraction that has garnered quite a fan following in Beantown since its opening this spring. While fast-casual dining options like the kind this eatery is modeled after are nothing new to the culinary landscape, Spyce offers a taste of something different: its meals are cooked and assembled by robots. The recipe for success = MIT grads + award-winning chefs. The geeks— Michael Farid, Kale Rogers, Luke Schlueter, and Brady Knight—bring the tech. Chefs Daniel Boulud and Sam Benson bring the recipes. The product is decidedly delicious but really, the biggest icing on the cake is the robots. We live in the age of experiential dining, where theater is a welcome, Insta-worthy ingredient that merits at least one visit. In that sense, the robot line cooks are an attractive proposition. And it’s safe to say that they’re pretty much the primary draw at Spyce. But if you’re expecting to see an R2D2 equivalent with blinking lights and space-age voices, set that aside for now. The robots here, all lined up neatly in a row, look more like average-sized front-loading dryers, so take that spectacle with a grain of salt. For what it’s worth, videos of the robots in action are allowed, even encouraged. Given that it is the robots that attend to each order, the offerings (starting at an affordable $7.50 with additions costing extra) are simple but fairly customizable.

The final presentation is in a bowl, comfort-food style for sure, but also a format that a robot can wrap its (mechanical) hands around. To be clear, it’s not all robots all the time. Humans act as benevolent overlords, helping diners punch in their orders into kiosks (digital natives will find the ordering process easy, but a few visitors might need help navigating the on-screen menu). It is also a human, a Garde Manager, who adds the final garnishes to every dish. Finally, humans operate the backend kitchen, prepping ingredients for use by the robots. Spyce gives you a generic “Latin” offering with roasted chicken, tomatoes, chiles, bell peppers, black beans, corn, brown rice, avocado crema, cabbage slaw, radish, and cilantro.

I opted for the vegetarian version, which essentially deducts the meat from the lineup. Once an order is placed at one of the stations, the assembly line is activated. The relevant ingredients are dumped into a large, rotating cylinder and a brick-like contraption at the top moves up and down the assembly line squirting the right sauce into the right container. After about a two-minute cooking period, the final is emptied into a bowl and the container is washed and readied to handle the next order. A human finishes the delivery process and readies the bowl for pickup. Spyce’s décor, with its industrial-chic ductwork and minimalistic watercolors, is decidedly pleasant, although the music can be jarring.

The location in a high-traffic area popular with tourists can often mean limited seating. This is not a place for a lunch date. The Thai bowl (sweet potatoes, bok choy in a massaman curry sauce, sautéed kale, brown rice, fried shallots, carrots, and herb salad), which I dug into on a later visit, tastes vaguely familiar but not quite what one would call Thai. And the Indian, while tasty, feels like a non-native’s version of “Indian”: chicken, tikka sauce, cilantro, tamarind chutney, puffed rice, and brown rice, all tossed together. Drinks such as kiwi limeade up the hipness quotient. Years from now, when the drama of the robots becomes more commonplace, the restaurant will have to bank on the quality of its food.

Here Spyce wins high marks, with one caveat: While the bowls are made with what taste like fresh ingredients and spiced well, I am not sure they’re worth choosing over your neighborhood Chipotle. Nevertheless, the restaurant has proven to be enough of a popular draw that a separate location is being planned in that original tech mecca across the river: Cambridge. For now, is Spyce worth swinging by if you’re in downtown Boston? For sure. And for a while, watching the robots make your food might even make Spyce a destination eatery for area New Englanders. Especially, if as the experts predict, robot food preparation is the way of the future, you will have seen it all in action at the very beginning. And isn’t being an early adopter a thrill ride all its own?

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