“The Automat” is a tribute to what once was the largest restaurant chain in the United States, despite the fact that it only operated in two cities. The brainchild of partners Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, the restaurant was inspired by a German restaurant that delivered pre-ordered meals to patrons via dumbwaiter. The innovation here was even more streamlined in terms of service. Put a certain number of nickels in slot, turn a button, and that brass-lined window would open, and you’d pull out a plate of creamed spinach, Salisbury steak, mac and cheese—the rhapsodies inspired by this dishes are repeated over and over by the satisfied nostalgic customers interviewed here, some famous, some not—and desserts like lemon meringue pie. And the coffee! The partners created an urn with a dolphin-head spout, inspired by Italian fountains. One cup was a single nickel, a treat that later would spell trouble for the company.
Hardart’s great-great granddaughter Marianne is one of the relatives who lays out the story. Another is Edwin Daly, the son of the man who succeeded Joseph Horn as president of the company in the 1940s. He is still passionate, even adamant about the original mission of its founders, which was founded on the precepts of simple service and good food.
During a golden age that stretched from before the Depression and into the 1950s, the Automat lived up to its mission, and became famous in the process. Hurwitz offers vintage film clips of celebs from Jack Benny and Sylvia Sidney to Bugs Bunny enjoying a meal there. The restaurants themselves were bright and attractive, with marble counters, half-balconies, elaborately detailed high ceilings.
So Brooks himself recalls, discussing his days as a boy living in poverty in Brooklyn—to whom Manhattan was an impossibly exotic destination—and seeing his first Automat, and moving on to his times as a starving comedy writer who couldn’t afford to eat anywhere else. As he and Carl Reiner reveal, in separate but intercut interviews, they continued to go there even when they were relatively flush, because they loved the grub. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, too; but she also loved the mix of people the place attracted. As did Colin Powell, whose recollections of how grateful he was to be welcomed, unequivocally, into the Automat when so many other places were racially segregated, are genuinely moving.