Lisa Hurwitz’s THE AUTOMAT is a delightful, informative documentary. Viewers learn about how this phenomenon became a “cultural and social part of America.” THE AUTOMAT was “the house that nickels built.” 

The “unique and special” part of this film was the story of how THE AUTOMAT was created, thrived for decades, and finally had to close its doors in New York and Philadelphia. The creators of this restaurant concept were Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart…H &H. At one point, Horn and Hardart were feeding ten percent of Philly’s population. Amazing! THE AUTOMAT was elegant back in its “hay day.” Clean marble counters and brass knobs on the glass windows were their style. Everyone was welcomed. Diversity and desegregation were what was served. All it cost for the best food was a nickel. Every portion was the same. They never ran out of food and no tipping. It was magical. 

THE AUTOMAT shared clippings, photos, interviews with historians, family members who are still alive, or their descendants. It also included conversations with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who all were regulars each week back in the day. Fascinating tidbits about New York’s history as well. I remember going to THE AUTOMAT when I lived in NYC in the 50s. It was a child’s fantasy of putting your coin in the slot and pulling out a piece of pie or cake. I loved eating there with my family each week—so many choices. 

THE AUTOMAT’s success was a blip in time. Could it have been as popular anywhere else? Probably not, but it sure was fun while it lasted. This is a wonderful trip down memory lane filled with food “that wasn’t fancy, but it’s good.”  Their motto was, “if you are going to do something, do it the right way.” Indeed, they did. 

THE AUTOMAT is available to stream on TCM. 

Esta Rosevear

Esta Rosevear has been a Theatre Arts teacher and director for 35+ years, published Children’s author of the Rebecca series, and is passionate about playing her violin, walking, gardening, and reading murder mysteries.

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