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ScreenShots: “The Automat”

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There are a lot of components to any great city, small things that add up and make them memorable to those who live in them.So we’re predisposed to liking “small” documentaries focusing on those essential elements of city life, the thread that – when taken together – help us better understand the people and eccentric charms of a major metropolis.

And so it was with “The Automat,” director Lisa Hurwitz’ love letter to the revolutionary food-for-a-nickel architectural wonder that welcomed New Yorkers of all races, creeds and political leanings, fed them for pocket change, and let them sit unbothered for hours as long as they all ate together.

As Hurwitz details, mainly through interviews with New Yorkers famous and not-so, these culinary dispensaries were once the largest restaurant chain in the United States, despite the fact that they only operated in two cities. The brainchild of partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, the Automat was inspired by a German restaurant that delivered pre-ordered meals to patrons via dumbwaiter. Horn and Hardart streamlined the service further: put the required number of nickels in a slot, turn a button, and a brass-trimmed window would open, and you’d pull out a plate of creamed spinach, Salisbury steak, mac and cheese, you name it.

A steady stream of disciples, some famous now and mere children when they visited the mechanical wonder that fed them and their families for mere pennies on the dollar, do rhapsodize over their favorite dishes – down to the nickel a cup coffee dispensed from a magical dolphin head spout.

Hurwitz talks with surviving corporate officers and employees, examines the golden years when the Automat was depicted in movies or served as the chosen locales for important civic events and premiers. The restaurants were bright and attractive, with marble counters, half-balconies, elaborately detailed high ceilings and an employee-care program that guaranteed hard work and loyalty.

We learn how the firm’s nickel-a-cup model made it virtually Depression-proof – until rising costs and waning customer demand eventually forced company leadership to make the decisions that would doom them. The last Automat closed in 1991, with all the fancy food windows and fittings that made them legendary ending up, forgotten, in architectural scrap shops across the East Coast.The impact the Automat had on the people who ate there, studied there, wrote their scripts there is documented in this movie. There are impressive cameo appearances by people who tell us how the restaurants helped democratize a city often split along lines of color and wealth. In the end we see how a European model was modified by American innovation and evolved into something that brought communities together and left an indelible mark on the memory of thousands.

OUR RECOMMENDATION: Well worth your time.

WHY WE LIKED IT: A deep dive into a subject you might not expect to be the subject of a documentary of this type. Cameos by New Yorkers of all stripes. An American story about a unique business in a unique city.

Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV.

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