Picture yourself entering a restaurant: no one shows you to your seat, no one takes your order, no one serves your food, and no one cleans up for you. You do it all.

Sound good? Well, Beijing's Renrenxiang, a proprietor of Hunanese cuisine, has implemented such a system, no doubt causing many a restaurateur to drool about saved personnel costs, and many an international news outlet to gush about how advanced China has become. Behold, the fuwuyuanless future ...

We dropped by one of Renrenxiang's two outlets their "flagship" restaurant on Xiaoyun Lu to check things out.

Renrenxiang's claim-to-fame is dining experience that requires no waitstaff.

We arrived right after mid-week lunch peak to find the less than six-month-old eatery empty – either no one had ever been there or they'd been surreptitiously maimed and pulverized into Soylent Green to feed future diners.

Five idle staff hovered in the background wordlessly while I tried to figure out their futuristic ordering system.

With a little playing around, I figured in out: place your order into the fancy machine at the door (or via their WeChat account), pay with WeChat Wallet or Alipay (similar to McDonald’s), then grab the receipt and navigate yourself to a table.

Your food will then be prepared in the kitchen (presumably by a human, but for all we know by a cybernetic organism equipped with a 3D printer spewing edible goo) and delivered on a conveyor belt.

You'll know when your food is ready when your number lights up on a screen. You then collect your food, like a good little human.

After you finish eating, you put your tray back on the conveyor belt and leave. Quickly. No need to make eye contact with the human staff.

Unfortunately, there's no English on the machine at all, so if you don't read Chinese, well you don't belong in the future anyhow. Or you may sheepishly ask for the help of the flesh-and-blood people (don't call them servers) that loiter around in the dining room not taking orders.

All this modern technology has resulted in replicating all the service and charm of a Cultural Revolution-era worker's canteen, albeit with more plastic, better mood lighting, and no shoving to grab the last mantou.

Staff no longer need demean themselves by taking orders subserviently from customers, leaving them plenty of time to stare idly at diners while pondering just when their remaining duties will be fully replaced by technology's slow, cold march towards the digitization of everything.

Or perhaps they are scientists, talking notes on the untrained anthropoid visitors to determine exactly how soon they will be able place customers on the conveyor belts and mechanically insert food into their mouths like geese being force-fed for fattening (this being an even more efficient system that does away with the necessity for seating as well).

The only other function of these humans, we can only assume, is to intervene in case imperfect customers fail to pick up their orders from the conveyor belt in a timely manner, setting off a slapstick crisis a la I Love Lucy.

The restaurant is full of faux-technology that has all the charm of being on the set of Star Trek: The Final Canteen. The shining floor is made of glass illuminated with blue LEDs, and the silver and black decor gives the whole venue the feeling of a space capsule, bound to give nerds and children at least a three-minute thrill until they tire of taking selfies.

The food is determinedly less futuristic. The pork noodle soup (RMB 32) took a long time to cook, though I have to admit was kind of exciting when I spotted it being spewed out of the kitchen. I almost compulsively shouted "Live Long and Prosper!" to thank the someone-or-other who made my order, but there was nothing but a lonely abyss to stare into at the end of the conveyor belt from which it came.

I also ordered fish noodle soup (also RMB 32) which consisted of pieces of fried fish, two slices of eggy tofu, vegetables (both fresh and preserved), and a plate of pickled long beans on the side. The soup was full of flavor, though the round rice noodles were boring, and didn't seem to me to be in any way related to Hunan cuisine as they claim.

The pork noodle soup came packed with more meat, but unfortunately used the same lame noodles. Although both portions were decently sized, the price was not so appealing: the cost savings of not having to pay waiters has obviously not been passed on to the consumer here.

We also tried their "mooncake” dessert (月亮粑粑, RMB 3), a sweet green rice ball (青团) that was so cold and stiff that our first attempt at dissecting the alien object using a solidly 20th Century cutlery item known as a spoon was completely futile (perhaps future cutlery here will feature chopsticks with laser beams to cut through desserts such as this). It also tasted more like conveyor belt rubber rather than soft sticky rice, making it quite possibly the worst (non) sweet green rice ball I’ve ever tried.

When not broadcasting your service number, the huge screen above the conveyor belt displays the message of “Hello! We Are From The Future!” in an infinite loop. Well, I am not sure this is a future I want to live in.

All in all, this establishment is obviously not here trading on Hunan authenticity or tastiness  its merely a gimmick that I'm sure everyone will feel tempted to fall prey to at least once.

And its not beyond the realm of possibility that some may enjoy the fact that you don’t have to talk anyone, nor leave the comfy digital confines of your WeChat account to enjoy a meal.

Given a good chunk of us are already addicted our 24/7 “pocket spouses," perhaps a future devoid of all face-to-face interaction is inevitable. After all, why eat with your boring workmates when you can catch the latest edition of "China's Got Talent" streamed at you in 5G as you slurp your noodles?

Well, call me a luddite but I kind of like good ol' days of face-to-face fuwuyuan interaction. Even a cranky, untrained waitress can help you with a glass of water or a napkin and they at least give you a certain amount of pampering.

Bye bye 100 percent self-service future, I won't be looking forward to you..

Oh, and one final note, both of their bathrooms were unavailable should you need imminent evacuation, and as far as I know, WeChat Pee is still in beta, so be forewarned.

Renrenxiang
35-2 Xiaoyun lu, Chaoyang District (5368 9421)
人人湘:朝阳区霄云路35-2号

More stories by this author here.

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Photos: Renrenxiang,Tracy Wang


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