THE AUTOMAT – Review by Jennifer Merin

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Lisa Hurwitz’s documentary, The Automat, will whet your appetite for a stroll down nostalgia lane and, at the same time, make you crave a slice of apple pie. The Automat is, of course, Horn & Hardart, one of the most popular and successful restaurant chains in US history and, alas, no longer in business to provide high quality, deliciously prepared and amazingly affordable food to 500,000 patrons per day.

The history is fascinating, especially because it is delivered with entertaining commentaries and anecdotes by Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Wilson Goode, Eliot Gould, Carl Reiner. Colin Powell and other famous patrons — all of whom thought of H&H as a way of life. There is also a rich collection of appearances by family members and employees who ran the shop, so to speak, as well as historians who’ve identified H&H as an authentic slice of Americana.

The business began in 1888 in Philadelphia, serving New Orleans-style coffee and baked goodies in a shop so small it seated only 15 customers — on stools! By 1898, several Horn & Hardart eateries had been established in Philly and NYC. offering diners a full menu of self service choices — all displayed in a wall of little windows. You made your selection, deposited several nickels, pressed a button and the window opened up so you could retrieve your chosen delight. The delivery system, developed in Europe, was easy to use, a lot of fun and an impressive engineering accomplishment.

The restaurants, located only in Philadelphia and New York, were elegantly decorated and immaculate. They were immensely popular with locals, but they were also prime tourist attractions. People from all walks of life — total strangers — would sit down with each other at shared tables with marble tops. No visit to New York City or Philadelphia was complete without a meal at H&H. Or, at least a cup of the world famous coffee.

Actually, I grew up dining at Horn & Hardart and I was terribly sad when the last of the lot — the restaurant on the southeast corner of 42 Street and Third Avenue — closed in April, 1991. I joined the line of patrons who wanted a final cup of H&H’s perfectly brewed coffee and a slice of apple pie. Unfortunately, they were out of apple pie by the time I gained entry, so I had to take rhubarb — but it was still fabulous. Like Mel Brooks and me, every one who ate at H&H has a fond memory and a tale to tell about their favorite eatery.

The Automat will treat you to a tasty slice of Americana.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).