It is possible that the heartbeat of a city can be heard loudest at its restaurants. These are places where people eat, drink, gossip, and celebrate. In New York City and Philadelphia, for some 80 years, the Horn & Hardart Automats were perhaps the best measure of the pulse of city life, according to first-time filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz’s delightful documentary Automat.
Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of eating in an Automat, Hurwitz brings the experience to life. As an indicator of changes in diners’ habits, Hurwitz also tracks the decline and rise of this Automat mini-chain over nearly the entire 20th century. century. Mel Brooks is interviewed about Mel Brooks’ childhood in Brooklyn and how he fell in love with the Automat. Is there anything more you could want in a documentary?
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The first Horn & Hardart restaurant opened in Philadelphia in 1888. Frank Hardart and Joseph Horn, the founders of Horn & Hardart, started out with a tiny lunchroom that had one counter and fifteen stools. One of their goals was introduce New Orleans-style coffee in Philadelphia. Not only was the lunchroom a success, but so too the coffee. idea of “automating” came a little later, in 1902. Individual items—made with care, eventually in centralized commissaries that could turn out large quantities of freshly prepared food—sat behind little windows, and were purchased by dropping nickels in a slot. The idea of this chain, which was only available in two cities and had wide cultural reach, would be its hallmark. During the Depression, a cup of coffee and a slice of pie cost just a few nickels at Horn & Hardart, providing sustenance and pleasure for city dwellers stretched thin. The coffee would flow from an elegant spout shaped like a dolphin—co-founder Horn got his inspiration from an Italian fountain, thus bringing a touch of European elegance to diners’ daily cup o’ joe.
Everyone—Black or white, rich or poor—was welcome at Horn & Hardart, as Hurwitz’s subjects attest. Colin Powell is one of them. He reflects back on his childhood in the Bronx and how he loved taking field trips to Manhattan Automats. There, he enjoyed the delicious food, which was inexpensive, but also served in elegant settings with high ceilings, polished marble tables, and shining floors. Ruth Bader Ginsburg relates how she used to frequent a Manhattan Automat every day after taking piano lessons. She could find quiet tables where she could read or work on her homework. And then there’s Brooks, who so adored the Automat that he wrote a song about it, which he performs over the film’s closing credits. Because the last Horn & Hardart closed in 1991, that 5-cent cup of coffee now exists only in his dreams. At least he gets to share the glory.
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