Monday, January 22, 2007

last Horn & Hardart Automat restaurant

In 1912, Philadelphians Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart made history in New York City when they opened the "Automat," a cafeteria with prepared foods behind small windows with coin-operated slots. It was like a giant walk-in vending machine.

Some items cost as little as a nickel. The Automats were particularly popular during the Depression; and their Macaroni and Cheese, Baked Beans, and Creamed Spinach were
popular offerings. Despite the low prices and lack of table service, the dining experience was somewhat luxurious, with Art Deco architecture that rivaled the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

Unlike modern fast food restaurants, Automat food was served on non-plastic dishes, with metal utensils, and drinks were in glasses.

A fast-fingered cashier sat in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter. She accepted paper money and coins from customers, and give them nickels. A customer would insert the required number of coins in a slot, and then slide open a window to remove the food. The machines were filled from a kitchen behind the windows.

The Automats became the world's largest restaurant chain, with 180 eateries serving 800,000 customers a day at its peak. The company also popularized the notion of take-out food, with the slogan "Less work for Mother."

The format was threatened by the growth of suburbs and the rise of fast food restaurants with drive-thru windows in the 1950s. By the 1970s, Automat appeal was strictly nostalgic. Also, inflation made food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, before dollar bill slots were common.

The last American Automat closed in 1991.

  • In The Apartment (1960), Jack Lemmon tells Shirley MacLaine that he ate dinner at the Automat last Christmas.
  • "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend", sung by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), contains the line, "A kiss may be grand but won't pay the rental on your humble flat or help you at the Automat."
  • In That Touch of Mink (1962), Audrey Meadows stocks the machines in an Automat.
  • In Hercules in New York (1970), Arnold Schwarzenegger as Hercules declares the food he got at a New York City Automat is "fit for the Gods".
  • Face The Music, a 1932 musical, featured Irving Berlin's "Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee," a song celebrating the automat.
  • Want to know more, and have the recipes for Automat macaroni and cheese, chicken pot pie, and other favorites? CLICK to buy a book co-authored by Frank Hardart's great granddaughter, Marianne Hardart
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