Although Chicago’s Chinatown is less than a 10-minute drive from Roosevelt Collection, the South Loop development that’s been aggressive in adding new restaurants this year in announcing Pacino’s Classic Italian and Lucky Well barbecue, management is adding a unique Pan Asian restaurant to the lineup with the addition of the X Pot. This restaurant promises an unusual dining experience with hot pots, sushi, and — of course — robots.

Sure, there’s a new Terminator movie coming out in November, but these restaurant robots aren’t here to replace humans, said co-owner David Zhao. They’re helpers, he said, designed to assist the servers who are there to help hot pot newbies, customers who aren’t familiar with the Chinese method of cooking raw meats and veggies in sizzling broth.

Nearby Chinatown has its share of hot pot restaurants. But the neighborhood lacks in robots. The X Pot’s kind of look like Daleks from Dr. Who. Zhao likened them more to Roomba vacuums in an interview with the Tribune. They’ll zip around the dining room carrying dirty dishes to the kitchen. This is the first time an American restaurant has utilized this type of robotic fleet. China has robotic waiters. A Silicon Valley start-up built food runner robots last year. A since-closed California Korean restaurant used them.

The restaurant will also use a 5D projector in its private dining room. It’ll project images on the walls, the plates, and the food, hoping to alter diner perceptions. Zhao also said staff will use dry ice and play with other methods of presentation to give customers a unique night. Music will also help create an immersive experience. It might not make the food taste better, but Zhao said no one really just goes out for just the food anymore.

“It has to be the hospitality, the food, the concept, the experience,” he said. “The whole thing, the environment, the ambiance, the technology — it’s everything combined.”

Zhao and business partner Haibin Yang opened Chubby Cattle in 2016 in Las Vegas. Zhao has a finance background while Yang handles the culinary. The restaurant brought a Mongolian-, Tibetan- and Chinese-inspired hot pot restaurant to Sin City. Its major innovation, according to Zhao, was the refrigerated conveyor belt. A compressor kept the raw food inside cold while it slid to customers. The X Pot is essentially Chubby Cattle 2.0, Zhao said. In May, he announced plans to open the first the X Pot in Las Vegas. Both restaurants will be around the same size, but Vegas gets a fountain for its decor.

The Chicago restaurant will have more sushi options compared to the Las Vegas restaurant. Zhao feels there’s a bigger market for Japanese food in Chicago. Zhao also described a tasting menu-like option where customers would tell servers what they like, including any allergies. The kitchen would then prepare a customized, coursed-out meal for customers. Zhao also wants vegetarians and vegans to know they’ll offer some broths free of animal products. The X Pot’s menu will also include affordable options and more luxurious items like A5 wagyu.

The X Pot experience is meant to be intuitive for all ages, Zhao said. While the restaurant’s core demographic maybe people in their 20s or 30s, Zhao feels older diners will enjoy their spin on hot pot. He envisions the X Pot as a destination-worthy restaurant where customers will travel from out of town. It’s like visiting a museum, Zhao said.

Chicago’s restaurant scene has seen an uptick in automation in recent years, particularly at Asian restaurants. While Zhao is keen on technology, he doesn’t want the space to come off as sterile. He feels friends and family will bond over hot pot, a communal dining experience where diners cook their meals tableside.

Zhao hopes to open the X Pot in May or June 2020 at the Roosevelt Collection.

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