Sunday, April 24, 2011

52 Weeks of Genealogy: The Automat and More

The quintessential New York City "casual dining" experience during the 1950s was at one of the Horn & Hardart Automats. The last one in Manhattan was near the Daily News building on Third Avenue and 42nd Street, and I remember going there to enjoy the Art Deco ambiance, not just the food.

As discussed in a Smithsonian article and in a book called The Automat, the Automat was cavernous and self-serve, with reasonably-priced hot and cold meals as well as prepared food ready for takeout by hungry commuters on their way home.

Eat-in customers would get a handful of nickels from the change lady and pump a few nickels into the slots to buy . . . well, my friend Rich's favorite was applesauce cake. My absolute favorite was sticky buns. My twin sis remembers great mac 'n cheese (the recipe, cut to family proportions by food maven Arthur Schwartz, can be found here).

My first restaurant experience on my own was a trip to the local Chinese restaurant at the corner of 225th Street and White Plains Road in the Bronx, at the foot of the steps leading to the elevated subway stop. I was 11 when I met my classmate Linda Kelly at the restaurant one weekend afternoon (we were in 6th grade at PS 103 together). We read the menu and ordered "one from column A and one from column B" plus wonton soup and spare ribs. When the bill came, we each had just enough money to pay our half.

I went home feeling very grown up because my friend and I had dined out all on our own. Only later did my parents think to mention that people usually leave a tip after a meal. Oooooops. I'm certain that my father stopped into the restaurant and slipped a couple of dollars to the owner or waiter, along with his thanks for treating two young girls with dignity during their first "grown up" restaurant meal.


  1. This post sounds like a lot of my husband's memories of Brooklyn dining - the Horn and Hardart Automat in particular figures prominently in one of his family's stories - about an aunt (pretty young at the time) who insisted on eating there when the family wanted to go out for a "fancy restaurant meal."

  2. "Fancy restaurant meal" is clearly NOT what the "Automat" was about! At least the food was good, even if there were no tablecloths or waiters. Thanks for the story and for your comments!

  3. I was fascinated with the automat concept after seeing one in a Doris Day movie years ago. I never experienced the real thing myself. Such a fun post! Thank you!

  4. Cynthia, thanks so much for your comment. As a kid, I loved to feed the nickels into the Automat doors. Eating was secondary! Except for those glorious sticky buns. Happy Easter.

  5. Thanks for the memories. I remember my Mom taking me to the Automat in NYC when we went into the city. I thought it was fun to look at all the different foods.

  6. So you remember the Automat too! There were so many choices . . . most were familiar but some looked exotic to a "plain vanilla" youngster like me. Thanks for sharing your memories!