Automatic for the People: Remembering the Automat Restaurants

Bettmann/CORBIS / Bettmann/CORBIS

Long before fast food chains invaded the city, New York’s favorite place to grab a quick lunch and a cup of Joe was the Automat.

If you were a working stiff in New York any time during the mid-twentieth century, there’s a good chance that your daily lunch breaks were spent at one of the fifty Automat restaurants around the city. At the height of their popularity, they served around 350,000 customers a day. With their vast walls of chrome-and-glass food-dispensing machines offering everything from Salisbury steak to cream spinach to apple pie, the Automats were famous for simple, hearty fare at a low price.

America’s prototype restaurant chain was the brainchild of Joe Horn and Frank Hardart. At the turn of the 20th century, the business partners envisioned a dining experience that would embrace the industrial revolution’s idea of conveyor-belt efficiency and uniformity. It would feature self-service vending machines instead of waitresses, and have a gleaming modern décor that was more factory than dining room. Inspired by a German eatery called the Quisiana Automat, Horn & Hardart launched their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Ten years later, they opened another in Times Square, and it was there that the Automat really took off.

New Yorkers loved the speed and low prices. And boy, were they low. Until 1952, almost all the food cost a nickel. A hamburger or bacon and eggs were two nickels. Originally, the Automat’s machines accepted only nickels. Cashiers – or “nickel throwers” – changed paper money and larger coins from a booth in the center of the restaurant. Diners dropped the nickels in the slots, turned a knob, then lifted a hinged window and removed the entrée, sandwich, or dessert of their choice. Aside from the novelty, one of the practical advantages of the Automat was that you could see the food before buying it.

Though the restaurants appeared to be automated, behind the scenes there was a busy staff constantly refilling the compartments. And the food, of course, was prepared by human hands, all of it from a central commissary in midtown. Other Automat staples included frankfurters, beef stew, macaroni and cheese, baked beans in a pot, mashed turnips, donuts and huckleberry pie.

Hot Coffee

For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee. Horn & Hardart popularized fresh drip-brewed coffee in New York. Prior to the Automat, coffee was often harsh and bitter, boiled and clarified with eggshells. The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads. In their heyday, Automats sold over 90 million cups of their fresh-brewed coffee each year. And they were committed to keeping it fresh. When an Automat employee brewed coffee, they filled out a time card. After twenty minutes, they discarded whatever coffee was left and made a fresh pot. If there was any doubt about Horn & Hardart’s commitment to java, the Automat even adopted Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” as their unofficial theme song.

In fact, Berlin was a regular at the Automat. So were Wall Street bankers, cops, sewer workers, office clerks, secretaries, actors, musicians and pretty much everyone else in the city. Uptown, downtown, rich, poor – everyone loved the Automat. That was another wonderful thing about it - it was a truly democratic dining experience.

By the 1960s, suburban sprawl, changing tastes and newer fast-food restaurant chains were taking their toll on the Automat’s business. By the 1970s, Horn & Hardart were replacing Automats with Burger King franchises. The last of the Horn & Hardart establishments closed in April 1991. In 2006, a restaurant called Bamn tried to revive the Automat concept in New York’s East Village, but its success was short-lived. A section of Horn & Hardart’s flagship 1902 Automat in Philadelphia is preserved in the Smithsonian National Museum.

And finally, a few words of love from famous Automat diners:

“I have always thought that the Automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world.” —Gregory Peck * “The Automat was the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised.” —Neil Simon * “I had the same lunch there every day: three vegetables, a roll, and cocoa. All for twenty-five cents.” —Jerome Robbins * “I lived at the Automat. They had the greatest chocolate milk. When I moved to Philadelphia, I apportioned less than two dollars a day to eat on, and the Automat was the only place I could do it.” —Dick Clark * “I went to the Automat all the time. I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful.” —Woody Allen

This post originally appeared in 2011.