There are 315 restaurants in the 2019 Michelin Guide San Francisco section. The City by the Bay’s impressive culinary scene — which includes legends like Chef Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn, Chef Michael Tusk at Quince, and Chef David Barzelay at Lazy Bear — was underscored when San Francisco resident and Food Network star chef Tyler Florence spoke to the audience from the Main Stage during PCMA Convening Leaders 2020’s opening session.
But when I headed to lunch on the last day of the program, I wasn’t in search of any local personality chefs. I wanted to try a cheeseburger made by a robot. I didn’t have to travel far from the Moscone Center. Creator, a restaurant that produces burgers with a massive robot, is just one block from the convention center’s South building.
Over the past three years, I have been reporting on the promise of robots driving people around at conventions and making beds at hotels during the Olympic Games. I included robot chefs as my 2020 trend to watch after reading about robot-made pizzas at CES in Las Vegas. Despite all these futuristic scenarios, however, robots haven’t revolutionized my life. As the days pass and I continue to only spend time with other living and breathing beings, I’ve grown a bit skeptical of their ability to plug in, turn on, and impress me. Could Creator prove me wrong?
I arrived at the restaurant immediately after the doors opened at 11 a.m., and a non-robot greeted me to give me guidance on how the whole process works. “You’ll order with me,” he said, “and then head on in to watch your burger being made.”
On the menu were eight different burgers. I chose the Masala Burger. While the robot would be preparing my burger, the Bombay-inspired recipe comes from Chef Arun Gupta at DOSA. There are, however, plenty of other menu items that require human assistance — fried cauliflower, a squash salad, and an array of beers, wines, sodas, and teas, which should help calm concerns that robots will take humans’ service jobs in the near future. A staff of more than 10 employees was busy loading ingredients in the machine, cleaning, and handling back-of-house duties. Their smiles and conversations alleviated any sci-fi, end-of-days kind of movie — with dozens of Alexas and Siris talking to each other as robots make food and restock napkins — that I had started playing in my head.
With shelves of books and plants, the restaurant’s ambience was more like a well-designed hotel lobby than a robot-powered future. “Every creator needs inspiration, and these books and photos do that for us,” a sign on the shelf reads. “We’re excited to share them in the hopes that maybe they’ll do something for you, too.”
I was more interested in keeping my eye on the robot than the shelves, as the machine sliced the bun in half before it slid down a tray to land in a recyclable tray to begin its journey. Then, the bun made second-long pitstops to accept the pre-determined amount of sauce and spices and wait for perfectly sliced onions and pickles to land. As these steps were completed, a combination of hormone-free chopped brisket and chuck steak was being prepared inside the machine. The bun arrived. The patty plopped on. An employee flipped the tray closed (never touching the bun) and called out my order. Voila.
The burger was delicious. Not in a delicious-considering-a-robot-made-it way, either. The heat of chili and tikka masala balanced with the sweetness of a mango chutney aioli. The burger was the kind of juicy patty that, as much as I love and applaud the Impossible Burger and plant-based protein movement, cannot be replicated. The pickles and onion were of the gourmet-fresh variety you’d expect from a high-end restaurant. It’s that upscale flair that makes Creator even more impressive.
The burgers are all $6.07 plus a tip for the humans who make the machine magic happen. I would have happily paid $15 for this burger. If the robots really do to take over the world, at least our food promises to be very tasty.
Seeing a robot in action isn’t the only headline-worthy activity near the Moscone Center. Learn about a digital art installation that shares the stories of more than 1,200 Bay Area residents.