Fast Food Done Right

January 21, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.52.42 PMThis soup isn’t what it seems. Despite the sweet setup, it’s not homemade. It isn’t even store bought.  This is Automat soup – that little box is the clue – and it cost a nickel in the coolest cafeteria America ever invented. New York’s great Automats were the delight of my childhood.

Here’s how one looked:

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Here’s another:Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 3.53.05 PM

And this is a really early one, betraying its Gilded Age heritage:

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The first American Automat was a Horn and Hardart, opened in Philadelphia in the late 1890s. New York’s first Automat opened in 1912, and proved so popular that by the thirties there were more than three dozen.

Here’s how it worked. You walked in and purchased a pocketful of change from the sole visible worker.  Then you strolled around perusing the dozens of different dishes on offer. The food, at least in its heyday, was made from scratch; even the orange juice was freshly squeezed (and discarded after 2 hours). It was true-blue American fare: stews, sandwiches, cakes. I was particularly fond of the macaroni and cheese, and they made a mean lemon meringue pie. Everything looked so enticing that I’d walk around and around, pushing my tray along the rail, trying to decide what to eat.

Once I’d finally made up my mind I’d put the coins into the slot and watch the little glass door spring open.  It seemed like magic to me: the workers who scurried around the kitchen, swiftly replacing food in the empty slots, were completely invisible.

Here’s a look behind the scenes:

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The best of the Automats – like the big one on 42nd Street – had wildly inventive delivery systems. I always begged my parents to let me fetch their coffee from the huge brass contraption. You put in a nickel, turned a handle, and the hot dark liquid came pouring from the mouth of an extremely decorative dolphin.

New York’s last Automat closed in 1991, but it was a sad shadow of its former self. The once-fresh food had gone into decline and by then you needed so many coins to buy a simple sandwich that the thrill was gone.

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  • Susan Rosen says:

    Ah, yes! My favorite childhood restaurant as well! The experience was almost magical for a child. You’d reach up to the change stand with a dollar and the cashier would simply scoop a pile of nickels to you – and there’d always be 20. The cold chocolate during the summer from the silver “serpent’s” mouth, the thrill of getting food from the little windows, and last but not least, the creamed corn from the steam table for 10 cents. I took my then 9 year old to the last one in 1990, but the magic, sadly, was gone by then.

  • Every Christmas from 1967 to 1970, I ate dinner (by myself) at the original Horn and Hardart in Philadelphia. I was going to college there, and the campus was closed down, but H & H was always open. I was so pathetic, it was special and funny and memorable.

  • What a great memory! My favorites were the Harvard beets, creamed spinach and macaroni and cheese with the tiny bits of tomato mixed into the cheese sauce…it was such a civilized and elegant way to have fast food.

  • Jane says:

    We never had a holiday that didn’t include H&H mashed turnips! My sisters and I still try to recreate them. They were a lovely gold color, soft, sweet and just the slightest bite. I remember many days walking to a H&H outlet on 23rd St off 2nd Ave getting these holiday must haves. Thanks for these great pictures too. I have a few memories eating at the one on 42nd St with my mom after shopping. Getting hot chocolate and pie.

  • Peggy Heyman says:

    My memories of the Automat stem from the one on East 86th Street in the late 1940s. The best little pots of baked beans, bologna sandwiches and lots and lots of nickels. Then we always went to Addie Vallins (sp?) down the block for the best ice cream in the world!

  • Growing up in Topeka, KS, I first visited Manhattan in 1979 and later on regularly until 1991. I marveled at the Automat and its art deco look and feel. I was used to cafeterias in the midwest but this was something new to me. My favorite offerings were desserts – lemon meringue pie and rice pudding and the macaroni and cheese. I miss the simple elegance and wish someone would find a way to blend today’s technology with the convenience and charm of the one and only H&H Automat.

  • Linda says:

    I was about 14 yr when I visited my aunt in nyc in the 1960s. She took me to one of the automats. I can’t remember what we ate but the experience was crazy cool. I loved it!!

  • Daisy says:

    There was actually an automat in Springfield, Mass! I used to visit it with my grandmother in the early 50’s. For some reason the vanilla ice cream had frozen bits (now I realize it had most likely thawed and frozen several times) that seemed sophisticated and exotic to a little kid.

  • Susan T. Case says:

    Mmmmm! Horn & Hardart: Salisbury Steak, Beef Stew, Buttered Carrots, Creamed Spinach, Mac & Cheese, Jello Cubes and Rice Pudding! These were my treats after patiently accompanying my mother on her shopping trips. The “family” restaurants with wholesome food were, sadly, supplanted by fast food places. Thanks for the memories, Ruth.

  • stacey charrow says:

    I loved the mac & cheese also! All through the sixties, my Mom, brother, sister and I would take the train into the city from Hastings-on-Hudson to visit the dentist. He was an old coot who didn’t believe in novocaine. We’d pray we didn’t have a cavity so we wouldn’t have to sit through the menacing drill noise and only when we yelled out would Dr. Winslow give us a break. After we were all done and our mouths were sore and the fillings soft mercury, we’d go downstairs to the auto mat and order mac & cheese because it was the soft food that I could eat while my fillings set and because I loved it. As well, I loved having my own coins and putting them into the slot. Great memory, thanks Ruth!

  • Joy Kramer says:

    I remember going to an automat at least once when I was a child. But it wouldn’t have been in New York, more likely Chicago. I do remember food behind doors and putting in change. Can’t remember what I ate. I loved the idea. Much more fun than driving through a fast food restaurant’s window.

  • Dani says:

    What a timely article, as I just re-watched the classic movie “That Touch of Mink” (1962) with Cary Grant and Doris Day. Besides being a funny movie, it featured an Automat in several scenes–both from the consumer’s side and from behind. I was astonished at the amount of food Doris Day’s character purchased to eat for lunch. 🙂

  • Fizzest says:

    I am aching with nostalgia reading this post. Thank you! As a kid my favorite thing about the automat was the catching a random flash of human hand through the the little glass window.

  • LisaSaitz-Sokol says:

    Fav place to be taken in childhood, meaningful!
    Basically only starch side-dishes were heaven: Spanish Spaghetti (some green pepper and I guess sweetened; pot of baked beans-every time;
    mashed sweet potatoes, candied on top; macaroni & cheese….
    Later learned from a NYer article that these were recipes of African Americans from the deep South. Mine and my sister’s only choice for lunch in midtown Manhattan!
    Thanks Ruth for this memory.

  • Pat Forrester says:

    Not only did I love the automat as a kid, I worked at a regular Horn and Hardart restaurant in Valley Forge when in college. We actually got to eat veal cutlet for our free meal…..among other things! The baked beans were wonderful and everyone loved the TCB…..toasted cinnamon bun, and those little iced cupcakes, I believe called glacés. Great memories and food.

  • Emily says:

    My husband grew up in Brooklyn…Marine Park…he remembers the Automat on Church Avenue….what a nice memory..thanks for sharing, Ruth!

  • Amy M says:

    It’s a sadness of my life that I missed Horn and Hardart — I guess I’m just a tad too young and too midwestern. H&H is mentioned in midcentury literature all the time, so I’ve been aware of it since I was little kid, and your post did that miraculous work of making me feel nostalgic for a thing I never experienced.

  • Loved hearing about this memory from Ruth and reading all the comments!!! I can tell that I missed a great experience. I am surprised that Detroit didn’t have one. Knowing my parents, they would’ve loved taking me there.
    This also brought up the memory of how much I enjoyed Ruth’s mother’s answer to catering her brother’s wedding . I still talk about that part when recommending the reading of the book Tender at the Bone, which is one of my favorite books.

  • Angela Muller says:

    I feel deprived that I have never been to one of those establishments, though I am certainly old enough. Where was I?

  • stephanie says:

    My great-grandmother and her brothers owned an automat. I would give one of my fillings to find out where it was and see what it looked like. What an amazing concept.

  • Thank- you Ruth for the trip down memory lane, there’s a magical quality to certain places, especially when your young, mine was good old Cliftons. I remember every Sunday after serving mass, going to Cliftons, and ordering my favorite dish: Hamburger steak and mash
    Potatoes and gravey and a slice of white bread with a wonderful slap of
    butter. Ah, to be 10 again.

  • normadesmond says:

    years back i had a post office box.
    an older post office, i always thought “automat” when i opened the decades old door.

  • Sophie says:

    There is a new restaurant here in California, eatsa, which is a vegetarian, technology-based automat. Check it out-the food is delicious, made from scratch and sourced responsibly!

  • Lisa Saitz-Sokol says:

    I am in pursuit of the H&H recipe for Spanish Spaghetti.
    Green pepper, maybe some sugar…. I would just love to recreate it!

    My typical all-starch meal ages 3-8 or so:
    Baked beans in a pot
    Spanish spaghetti
    Mashed sweet potatoes (molasses)
    Macaroni and cheese