“Automats were right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Madison Square Garden,” Kent L. Barwick, former president of the Municipal Art Society, lamented to the New York Times in 1991 when the country’s last automat closed. The automat, a precursor to today’s fast food chains, was a staple of the New York City dining scene in the first half of the 20th century. Originally conceived in Germany, the self-service restaurant featured coin-operated vending machines from which patrons could buy fresh coffee, simple meals, and desserts for an affordable price.
Along with automats, self-service cafeterias changed the way New Yorkers ate and socialized. In her forthcoming book, Kibbitz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria (Three Hills, May 2023), photographer Marcia Bricker Halperin revisits one of New York City’s most popular self-service cafeterias on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. Through Halperin’s photographs from the 1970s and 80s and essays by Donald Marguiles and Deborah Dash Moore, the book explores the story of Dubrow’s Cafeteria and the culture that sprang up around these New York City eateries. Here, we take a look at 8 of the city’s lost automats and self-service cafeterias like Dubrow’s!
1. Horn & Hardart
Automats are synonymous with Horn & Hardart. Business partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened the first automat in the United States in Philadelphia in 1902. They expanded into New York City in 1912, opening the first location in Times Square. Eventually, there would be more than forty Horn & Hardart locations in New York. One former Horn & Hardart building that still stands can be found at 2710-2714 Broadway, on the southeast corner of Broadway and 104th Street. It was occupied by the automat until 1953. A ghost sign at 146 West 48th Street marks another former location. At its height, the company had more than 150 automats and retail shops throughout Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore.
In the beginning, automats served simple foods like buns, fish cakes, and beans. Diners could also get hot coffee, brewed fresh every twenty minutes, for just five cents. In addition to having the best cup of coffee in town, the automats were also known for their striking Art Deco decor. As the company continued to grow, its menu expanded to include lunch and dinner foods like mac and cheese. pot pies, and steaks. The company even opened up retail locations where they sold packaged “to-go” foods.
The last Horn and Hardart automat, located at 200 East 42nd Street at 3rd Avenue, closed on April 8, 1991. Automats continues to be part of New York City culture today as it was recently recreated as a set for the fifth and final season of Amazon’s hit series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is bringing back the automat format of dining with new technology.