3. Horn & Hardart Automat, 146 West 48th Street

A painted ghost sign advertising Horn and Hardart automat on the side of a brick building

Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened their first restaurant, a small luncheonette with no seating, in Philadelphia in 1888. The pair opened their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902, after Hardart was inspired by the “waiterless” restaurants he saw in Europe. Ten years later, Times Square was the site of the first Automat in New York. 

Automats featured walls of small glass windows displaying prepared food. Customers fed a few nickels into a slot to enjoy favorites like macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and creamed spinach.

“For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee,” noted Smithsonian magazine. “Prior to the Automat, coffee was often harsh and bitter, boiled and clarified with egg shells. The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads.”

Black and white vintage photo of a man in a dark coat and hat ordering food at an automat in NYC
Horn & Hardart Automat, 977 Eighth Avenue. Courtesy of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, New York Public Library

At its peak, Horn & Hardart was the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 800,000 people daily. Changing consumer tastes and the popularity of fast food led to the Automat’s demise. The last of New York City’s Automats closed in 1991. Horn & Hardart was recently resurrected by the film crew of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. A recreation of the former restaurant was built inside a Crown Heights church for the upcoming fifth season.

A ghost sign for the Automat remains partially visible from the sidewalk on 38th Street. A visit to the roof of the adjacent parking garage provides a complete view of the ad, which reveals its location “on Broadway corner in this building.”

That Garment District Automat at 1385 Broadway is recalled by Amelia Bucchieri in Placematters. “This Automat on 38th and Broadway was open for breakfast and closed mid-afternoon. It was a patternmakers’ hangout. Most people that worked in the area of 37th Street and 38th and Broadway brought from home their sandwich and only bought coffee from the Automat at 38th and Broadway until the manager would catch us. Coffee was only five cents.”