As I approached the curved wall of glowing glass compartments, I imagined I was about to have dinner on a space ship.
“Good evening, Jeremy. Dinner is served,” a disembodied voice should have announced.
There was no voice. But there was a box in the middle of the wall with my name on it. Close enough.
As intergalactic as it may have seemed, all I was doing was picking up my dinner in Jersey City — only without a single moment of human contact. No cashiers, no servers. Just me and the big wall of food.
Such is the futuristic yet highly pandemic-appropriate setup for Automat Kitchen, a new contactless restaurant that combines feelings of watching a science-fiction flick and fetching your clothes from a gym locker room.
The Automat is a modern take on a culinary trend that came to America in 1902 and took off in the ’60s, with meals and snacks served from vending machines behind sliding doors. The trend died out more than 50 years ago — blame the rise of fast food — and now they’re doing it digitally, with smartphones and credit cards replacing the old nickel payments.
Automat Kitchen opened late last month with COVID-friendly food practices in mind, serving a menu ranging from breakfast tacos and waffle sandwiches to pastrami reubens, chicken pot pie and cinnamon beignets.
Yes, there is indeed a kitchen, with human chefs, at Automat Kitchen — you just can’t see it. It’s behind the wall of food lockers, and it springs into action as soon as you place your order online or at the kiosk inside the restaurant. A text message alerts you when your order has been placed in the box and is ready for your pickup, furthering the contactless format introduced in recent years at chains like Panera Bread and Cava, then boosted by the pandemic.
I ordered ahead from my computer — meals typically take between 10 and 15 minutes to prepare. Mac and cheese seemed like a safe bet, and I was curious how a salad would turn out. The massaman curry pot roast felt more ambitious. I also ordered a root beer float out of pure curiosity — how are they putting that in a vending machine?
As I walked up Washington Boulevard en route to the Automat, I noticed the traditional restaurants around me — Los Cuernos, the Newport outpost of the popular Taqueria, and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse — were both essentially empty at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. It was yet another grim reminder of how COVID-19 has brought the dining industry to its knees. It made me wonder if places like Automat Kitchen, which prides itself on being a “technology-driven contactless experience,” would set some new standard for COVID-era dining.
The Automat is on the first floor of a building adjoining Newport Mall — if you didn’t know what it was, it would just look like an ultramodern locker room. The minimalist concept consists only of the looming locker wall, an ordering kiosk, a soda machine, some tables and hand sanitizer dispensers. I didn’t see a single front-facing employee.
I keyed in my secret code and dinner was revealed: Three takeout containers stacked in a plastic bag, plus a disk of ice cream in a plastic cup for me to make my root beer float — I suppose it was silly of me to expect a beautiful foamy treat waiting for me ready to go.
The food mostly held up on my walk home, though the root beer float became a melty (albeit still tasty) mess. All three dishes looked presentable — though to be fair, pot roast and mac and cheese aren’t exactly Beef Wellington.
Both were tasty but far too salty. The mac and cheese was nice and creamy, with the parmesan crisps adding sharpness and texture. The pot roast had the requisite sweetness of a massaman curry and the beef was tender, but the seasoning was so salty I was sipping water after the first bite. The salad was a standard salad. And the root beer float, while melted, became a milkshake that still hit the spot.
Would I try it again? Sure, but with different dishes. Those breakfast tacos and cinnamon beignets sounded tempting.
I don’t know if this is the true automat experience of past generations, but a modern take on that process is fun in its own way — even if it did have me flashing back to my high school gym.
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Jeremy Schneider may be reached at [email protected]. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.