From the hall of ersatz messages, we walked around the corner to the authentic original temple of modern dining, the Automat.
Long before McDonald’s and Burger King moved from strip mall paradises out on Highway 50 in Orlando to urban centers near Grand Central, Horn & Hardart had reigned supreme as America’s original fast food restaurant. Like the post office, the walls were covered with tiny glass windows displaying Salisbury steak, sandwiches, macaroni & cheese, pudding, or slices of cherry pie, all fed by kitchen staff behind the wall. After inserting either coin or token into the slot and turning the handle, you could raise the window and take out the delicacy.
There was also a cafeteria line if you had more time to wait.
This was our go-to place for dinner. It was quick as well as quirky.
Dinner out of a vending machine? True, it really wasn’t fine dining. But Dad liked the price. Some of the other patrons were sights to behold; this was on 42nd Street, after all. But the roast turkey and rice entrée – in the cafeteria – were sublime. Still going strong in the 1960s, there were more than 50 Horn & Hardart restaurants in New York City.
I was catching my dinners there as the Automat itself was about to get rolled in the fast food business. Newer, faster dining alternatives were about to invade Manhattan, featuring over the counter service, removal of the gritty vending machine environment, and less hassle over change.
Did I mention it was cheap? Dad loved it. The employees should have known him by name; but Dad wasn’t there to hobnob with the Automat employees. To me, with him and a pocket full of nickels, it was a culinary palace.
Oddly, though, the Automat is often praised as a monument to modernity. As one who frequently admires the future, and does so frequently on these pages, I beg to differ. I found the Automat to be strangely antiquated. Sure, buying your meal out a vending machine concept was a novel idea when the Automat was introduced in Berlin in 1895 (and patented!).
Nevertheless, I can’t deny that there was a depression-era patina about the place. It was never renovated or truly modernized. I mean, the turkey platter was great. But the ambience just paled in comparison to the Pan Am Building. By the mid-1960s, however, the Automats had already been around for 60 years (first one opened in Philadelphia in 1902. New York got its first one ten years later.) I don’t think they ever bothered to evolve.
Wearing of a hat indoors at the Automat was obligatory until 1961.
Maybe I was spoiled as I had already been to the drive-in burger joints out on Highway 50 in Orlando with my step-dad, where you could order your meal in your car. And have it delivered to you by a girl on roller skates. But that was about as modern as central Florida got in the mid-1960s.
But the drive-in concept wasn’t going to work on 42nd Street. So fast food adapted in other ways to get into the big cities.
Change, turmoil, and disruption roil the fields of commerce continuously. And it wasn’t only in fast food. As my readers well know.
It may very well be that the Automat couldn’t survive the dismantlement of the 3rd Avenue el, or the 2nd Avenue el before it. What once was an oasis under the tracks turned out to be tawdry once awash in sunlight. Kind of like those Hammer movies where Dracula is exposed to the morning light.
After dinner – it was fast, after all – we still had an hour or two to kill before returning back to the Peter Cooper Hotel. Remember, in the summer months, the sun doesn’t set in New York until around 8:30 PM.
Our favorite destination was Central Park.
And the closest part of that park offered that singular attraction for children, the Central Park Zoo.
Burger King is everywhere! Even Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow! Photo by the Author.