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The Automat (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 13, 2022


Featuring Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Howard Schultz, Ron Barrett, Paul Hardart, Marianne Hardart, Norris Horn, Alex Shuldiner, Lorraine Diehl, Wilson Goode, Lisa Keller, John W. Romas and Apache Ramos.

Directed by Lisa Hurwitz.

Distributed by A Slice of the Pie Productions. 79 minutes. Not Rated.

It is hard to believe that a restaurant chain that only existed in two cities – New York and Philadelphia – could become as iconic and beloved a brand as Horn & Hardart did in the last century.

For almost 100 years, Horn & Hardart was a go-to destination for dining in those two cities. In the 1940s, the chain would feed 500,000 people a day in their 157 locations in New York and Philly. Locals, tourists, businessmen, blue collar workers, families, singles, big stars and the common folk all stopped by H&H for their famous food and five cent coffee.

It was a safe space for all colors, all classes, all religions, all persuasions. Everyone was welcomed equally. It was a melting pot of humanity; one with famously good mac and cheese, decadent pies and the best coffee in town.

People could go into Horn & Hardart with a roll of nickels and have a feast.

And the chain’s biggest selling point was the Automat. Based upon an idea that Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart discovered in Europe, all types of foods and drinks were served in huge vending machines. The patron would go up to a wall of little windows, find what they wanted, insert their nickels, turn a knob and out would come a ham sandwich, or a cup of soup, or a little bowl of pudding.

The restaurants were huge and usually very crowded. Decorated with grand art deco flair, they were as beautiful as they were inexpensive, as inclusive as they were special. People from all over would put on their best clothes, gather the family, grab some trays and experience a fabulous culinary event.

The Automat looks at the history of Horn & Hardart, speaking with some remaining execs from the business or their heirs, and some famous fans of the eateries from the world of comedy, film and politics. It takes a wistful look at an America that is long gone, and also an America that never quite came to be. It was a beautiful colorblind, classless world where strangers could share a table, share a cup of New Orleans coffee and share their lives.

It has often been said that Horn & Hardart was the birth of fast food, however as one of the interview subjects in The Automat explained, that was an oversimplification. Yes, the food was easy to get quickly, however this was extremely high-quality food, the equal of any fine restaurant. The company had just perfected a new way to get their food to the people.

Sadly, three of the celebrity talking heads have died since this was filmed – Carl Reiner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell – which is oddly a commentary on how Horn & Hardart was part of a world which is unfortunately fading away.

By the 1960s, the bloom was off the rose. People were moving from the cities to the suburbs. Quality was not as important as convenience, and people started going to actual fast-food restaurants. By the 1980s, some of the remaining Horn & Hardart restaurants dispensed of the automat concept completely and just became diners and buffets. (The last time I was in a Horn & Hardart, in the fall or winter of 1984 in the Philly suburb of Bala Cynwyd, it was simply a restaurant.) By 1991, the last automat closed down in midtown Manhattan.

The chapter ended, the world moved on, and yet to this day I think people are fascinated by the idea and a sepia-toned, more civilized world where people dressed up to go out to eat and the closest thing to heaven was a piece of coconut custard pie.

The Automat is a glance back at that world, one which seems so much different and so much more innocent than the world we live in. A scene towards the end of The Automat where the filmmakers go to a long-forgotten warehouse which stores the old Automat machines can bring a lump to the throat.

However, for a time, it was something of a dining utopia. And through The Automat, those of us who never really got to feel the Horn & Hardart experience can live it vicariously.

Director Lisa Hurwitz will be appearing for a Q&A on the opening night 7:30 show at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia on March 11, 2022. The film will also be opening March 18 at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and The Ambler Theater in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: March 11, 2022.

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