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TCB Unlimited: Where Robots meet Restaurants

The summer holidays always herald a resurgence of blogging for me, six weeks of uninterrupted me time to spend eating, drinking and writing about it. When I considered the first place I might review over the upcoming weeks I toyed with a few ideas. I'm yet to try Ellis Barrie's Lerpwl for example, and my favourite South Liverpool dining spot Berringtons has rebranded as a neighbourhood Italian. It therefore came as a surprise even to me that the first place that would fire up my keyboard again would be somewhere I'd never heard of: TCB Unlimited

Whilst the name sounds suspiciously like a front for an industrial solvents company, TCB is in fact a (rather unappetising) acronym for The Chinese Buffet, a new chain of Chinese restaurants springing up inconspicuously all over the North with only one thing in mind: world domination  a new way of doing 'all you can eat' buffet food. 

I've been to more than my fair share of Chinese buffets in my life time and for the most part the experience is pretty standard wherever you go. It's all about low cost food, high mark-ups on the drinks, clear tactics from the outset and the age old battle of attempting to get your money's worth by piling your plate as high as you dare. So what makes this restaurant worth reviewing?

Oh, just that the waiters are robots. Welcome to the future, baby.

Arriving at TCB on a drizzly Monday night was an ominous start to the adventure that was about to unfold. You'll find it down by the airport in a building aptly named The Aerodrome. A circular giant of a restaurant that housed my former childhood favourite Damons- a temple to low-priced Tex-Mex birthday food, family parties and very, very good BBQ ribs. As a child it was like a trip to the Ritz, as an adult I'm less than surprised to hear it was 'always a bit shit'...I wonder if the kids in there last night will have similar feelings towards this place when they're older?

The reviews for this place are abysmal but, if anything, got me even more excited for what was to come. Complaints range from comments on the 'shockingly bad' food including one interesting claim that the ice-cream tastes like bleach to the (frankly hilarious) declaration that the people who run the place 'belong in jail rather than the service industry'. All the staff I met were lovely... I feel somewhat guilty for laughing.

Lounging about...

Upon arrival you'll be invited to take a seat in the lounge, a description I'm sure even the TCB overlords would admit is a bit of a stretch of the imagination, I've been in more comfortable NHS waiting rooms. It is a truly humongous space with a bar stretching right the way across the side. The interior is almost exactly how I remember it from my youth aside from the iconic leather booths which are, like the best of us, starting to show their age a little. 

As is common place now in a post-Covid world, ordering is done through an app which needs to be downloaded before your visit. A (human) waiter will give you a QR code to scan and then you can get going. Whilst the concept is still very much 'all you can eat', you have to order what you want bit by bit. The pause in between ordering and the arrival of the food to the table allows you a little time to process, reduce food waste and/or contemplate your life choices. I'll have another portion of the meatballs (?) with a side of questionable life choices please, sir.

Now here's what you've all been waiting for: the Bella Bot, or to be more accurate a burgeoning fleet of Bella Bots. Zooming up and down the ramps between tables, these robot waiters were surprisingly speedy at delivering our bite-sized buffet portions and then whizzing off to collect the next load. Bella carries food to your table whereby you unload it yourself and tap 'finish', you'll then have the pleasure of an animatronic cat face wishing you pleasantries. Not quite The Minority Project just yet but still a bit of a marvel to witness for the first time.

I'll level with you here: the food is bang average buffet food. The soup was alright. The duck was dry but decent enough. The starters are beige, and fried and greasy and exactly what you'd expect from this sort of thing. The meat is questionable. The saucey dishes are luridly bright, thick and coat your tonsils like sugar syrup. The dessert is a choice of jelly, mini profiteroles and Mr Whippy style ice-cream and  don't even try and label me as a food snob because it's not cheap, either! I paid the best part of £30 for this bonanza, a price tag that'd see you through a 3 course lunch at Hope Street's Roski- a considerably wiser investment for sure but arguably not one bit as fun.

Would I recommend the TCB Unlimited dining experience? Depends who's asking, really. For the food, no. But for the robots...probably a gimmick worth paying for at least once in your life. Any of my friends want to go back? I'll go with you...only in the interests of journalism, honestly.


* (If you want Chinese food in Liverpool that's really going to blow your socks off then go to Lu Ban where local Chef Dave J Critchley produces stunningly creative dishes inspired by his time in the Tianjin region of China. I reviewed them pre-lockdown- you can find that review here.

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