Return of the Automat?
During a recent nostalgic discussion of Philadelphia and New York's Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants, there was a good bit of talk about what a great thing it would be to revive the unique serverless windowed eateries that boasted 40 locations in New York City, Philadelphia, and dozens more across the U.S. We who patronized the automat regularly called it H&H. It was an eatery where the rank and file, as well as celebrities of the 40s and 50s, went to eat good food. It wasn't haute cuisine, but it was flavorful, hot, and hearty. Supposedly the coffee was among the best in the country and was never permitted to get stale in the pot. It was dispensed from a brass dolphin-head spigot, steamy and aromatic, laced with chicory. It was mainly about the Experience. I was too young for the coffee but I remember the experience very clearly.
Each serving of macaroni and cheese, which was their signature dish; Salisbury steak; creamed spinach; mashed white or sweet potatoes; chicken croquettes with béchamel sauce; meatloaf; and other dishes was purchased by the customer by lifting the food out of small individual glass windows for a nickel or three into a slot. Each dish was on a real plate, hot, unpackaged, and delicious — so delicious, in fact, that decades later, some clever sleuths tracked down some of the recipes and published cookbooks so that home cooks could duplicate the nostalgic dishes. Although some recipes were not completely authentic, you had to have patronized H&H long and often to know that. For example, the famous original H&H macaroni and cheese had little bits of tomato in it, but some cookbooks omitted it — a glaring transgression, but you had to be an H&H regular to know the seriousness of the error.
H&H Automats were inviting places of brass and glass in the hybrid style of Art Deco and sometimes the 1900s mixed together. The huge wall that housed the little glass-windowed cubbyholes had real but invisible human beings behind it whose job was to resupply the empty cubby with another hot, fresh serving. You had to swap your quarters and dollar bills for nickels to use in the slots, so there was a cashier close to the front door who did just that for you. She usually wore rubber-tipped finger covers. Several Hollywood stars such as Audrey Hepburn were featured in movie scenes at H&H's Automat, so it wasn't a national secret.
H&H had hearty, honest, good food that the masses wanted. When the Automats closed, they missed not just the food, but the experience of the Automat itself. Something tactile, something sensual, something nostalgic was offered up behind the little glass windows. There was a substantial and satisfying click upon opening and closing the window and a general quality feel to the H&H Automat that has not been duplicated in any cardboard-y fast food place of the 21st century. There used to be an H&H takeout place at the 30th Street Philadelphia train station in the '60s, but it's gone now, and Philly is the poorer for it.
Americans are now hearing distant rumblings of a resurgence of the Automats. A recent 2021 documentary film, The Automat, directed and produced by Lisa Hurwitz, can be streamed on IMDB. On Feb. 24, there was an L.A. Times article about the documentary, which features quite a few celebrities, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliot Gould, and Colin Powell extolling (and Mel Brooks singing) the virtues of the Automat. Another news story talked about possibly reopening the Automats for a post-COVID treat and some national spirit. I hope it happens. The stars seem to be aligning for the Automat to make a comeback, and not a moment too soon.
America could do with a huge dose of H&H Automat nostalgia about now. With American institutions being dismantled at a record rate, we would benefit from something that might bring us together over a steaming hot dish of H&H macaroni and cheese sans the side of woke so often served up by drive-through boutique coffee shops staffed by orange- and blue-haired radical environmentalist activists with Attitude. Put the baristas behind a wall where they are not seen or heard, and get them to serve up hot dishes of mashed sweet potatoes, vanilla pudding with vanilla sauce; brown-sugared baked beans; meatloaf; roasted chicken; and, above all else, H&H's signature macaroni and cheese.
Image: New York Public Library.