Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things We Want Back: Automats

An automat (sometimes referred to coloquially as a wall) is a fast food restaurant where simple foods and drink are served by coin-operated and bill-operated vending machines.

Originally, the machines took only nickels but modern automat vending machines accept bills. In the original format, a cashier would sit in a change booth in the center of the restaurant, behind a wide marble counter with five to eight rounded depressions in it. She would serve many customers at once, taking their money from the depressions and dropping nickels in its place. She did this very rapidly, throwing down five nickels at a stroke, four strokes to a dollar. The diner would insert the required number of coins in a machine and then lift a window, which was hinged at the top, to remove the meal, which was generally wrapped in waxed paper. The machines were filled from the kitchen behind. All or most New York automats also had a cafeteria-style steam table where patrons could slide a tray along rails and choose foods, which were ladled out of steaming tureens. Automats are still very common in The Netherlands, but outside of there, few exist. In the United States, the last one, a Horn & Hardart automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, closed in April 1991. In 2006, an automat opened in New York City's East Village, but it was closed in March, 2009.

Unlike modern vending machines, food was served on real dishes with metal utensils, and drinks in glasses.

Inspired by the Quisiana Automat in Berlin, the first automat in the U.S. was opened June 12, 1902, at 818 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia by Horn & Hardart. The automat was brought to New York City in 1912 and gradually became part of popular culture in northern industrial cities. Horn & Hardart was the most prominent automat chain.

In its heyday, recipes were kept in a safe, and described how to place the food on the plate as well as how to make it. The automats were popular with a wide variety of patrons, including Walter Winchell, Irving Berlin and other celebrities of the era. The New York automats were popular with out of work songwriters and actors. Playwright Neil Simon called automats "the Maxim's of the disenfranchised" in a 1987 article.

The format was threatened by the growth of suburbs and the rise of fast food restaurants catering to motorists (with their drive-thru windows) in the 1950s; by the 1970s, their remaining appeal was strictly nostalgic. Another contributing factor to their demise was undoubtedly the inflation of the 1960s and 70s, making the food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, in a time before bill acceptors commonly appeared on vending equipment.

At one time there were 40 Horn & Hardart automats in New York City alone. The last one closed in 1991 after the company, which was exiting the restaurant business, failed to find a buyer for it. At the time, the quality of the food was described by some customers as on the decline

1 comment:

Bryan's workshop blog said...

An automat makes an appearance early on in Dark City. Amazing, underrated film, that.