Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, we rarely (apart from vacations, almost never) ate out. Meals were eaten where meals were meant to be eaten - at home (or the homes of other relatives) So I really looked forward to our periodic shopping trips downtown. Both my parents worked at Macy’s Herald Square, about an hour away on the D train. So we often went there – especially to buy our shoes. And, one of the best incidental side-benefits of those outings was lunch or supper at the Automat on 34th Street.
On this date 100 years ago, The Horn & Hardart Company opened its first New York Automat at Times Square. (Ironically, I think the last time I ever ate at an Automat was at a Times Square store sometime near the end of the 1960s). Like a number of other very good inventions (among them the United State of America), the Automat actually had originated in Philadelphia. By the time of the post-war “golden age” of life in New York City – the era and world in which I grew up – there were dozens of such Automats around, wonderful places where the customer dropped the requisite number of nickels in the slot and then turned the knob and removed some delicious dish from behind the glass windows of the marble and brass machines. There were Automat classics – among them, the best Baked Macaroni and Cheese I’ve ever eaten anywhere. And, of course, the Baked Beans – such a classic that some of the brown bean pots they were served in would actually be auctioned off when the Automats eventually went out of business. The Automat also featured freshly brewed drip coffee – a relative treat in a world dominated then by the percolated version of that most basic drink.
In an era and world in which wage workers had an hour or less for lunch, the Automat offered a quick and easy meal, unencumbered by waiter service – no tipping needed, either. In a pre-McDonalds world, it also offered a respectable and convenient setting for someone who, for whatever reason, found himself eating alone. In time, it would be the even faster fast-food outlets, lacking in ambience but with more flexible technology, that would eventually help put the old Automats out of business.
The last Automat in New York (at East 42nd & 3rd) finally closed in 1991. But the Automat is being remembered this summer in an exhibition at the New York Public Library.