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.