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At the Automat, restaurants for the lonely

New York

Every so often in the course of our research we develop a mini obsession that takes us off course, losing precious work hours and building our residue of useless knowledge. Our latest is the Automat, a chain of restaurants on the United States’ East Coast that brought the assembly line approach of the machine age to the hospitality business.

Started in Philadelphia in 1912 by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, they spread to New York in 1912, growing to more than 150 outlets. The Automat did away with table service, walls were lined with glass-fronted serving hatches, each containing a specific dish – chicken pot pie, baked beans, a sandwich – obtainable by putting a few coins in the slot. Diners could assemble their meal from available options and take a seat anywhere they liked, in rooms decorated in splendid modern style, heavy on the glass and chrome. It was a winning combination – economical, democratic, and free of anxiety about the bill with everything paid up front and no tipping. It was ideal for the busy person on a lunch break, as used by Doris Day’s independent career woman in Cathy Timberlake in That Touch Of Mink, but with the potential to seem cold and impersonal, as it appears in Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat.

By the 1960s The Automat was on the wane, but it still had at least one devotee in Andy Warhol, who liked it so much that in the mid 1970s he worked on his own interpretation of the chain, The Andy-Mat. “I really like to eat alone,” he said. “I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people like me called ANDY-MATS – ‘The Restaurant for the Lonely Person.’ You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television.” The project almost came to fruition, with architect’s plans, a menu and a proposed address – 933 Madison Ave – but was abandoned.

A collection of film clips put together by Cladrite.com (linked below) is a vivid insight into the Automat, here used as a backdrop to romance and intrigue, emphasising in most cases the straitened circumstances of many of its diners, despite surroundings that look, to eyes more used to Subway and Pret, wonderfully glamorous.

 

All the Automats are now gone, but one dedicated fan has mapped all the New York locations (see above) for anyone wishing to take a tour.

Read more about the Automat in the Smithsonian Magazine, The Automat, and Gotham From The SquareUntapped Cities has great photos of what must have been beautiful branch at 57th Street and 104th Street, and Ephemeral New York is, as ever, unmissable. We also applaud the work of 14 to 42 for this extraordinary image.

Thanks to Brett at Cladrite for pointing us to a proposed Automat documentary, which you can read about here.

Published 24 February 2015

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