Coin-op cuisine: when the future tasted like a five-cent slice of pie


[Read the post]


My mom took me to a H&H in the late 60s. I guess I was seven or eight. The place had a sort of run-down air to it. Not dirty, just worn and past its prime. I had some kind of dessert item; might have been pie.

The NY Public Library had a wonderful exhibit about “Lunch” a few years back. Essentially a small temporary museum exhibit. A good chunk of it was devoted to the automat. They had a screen showing scenes from movies in which an automat figured, and a bank of slots which you could open and take recipe cards from. Original H&H recipies for creamed spinach and the like.


The Eaton’s here in Montreal had an automat, right into the seventies. I can’t
remember when it disappeared. It was on the fifth floor, same as the toy
department, so when we went to see Santa Claus about now, we’d have a meal
at the automat.

I have no idea how it compared to. the famous one. I just remember the wall of
windows, each had their own coin slot, and places to sit. And a machine that
sucked in paper money, and issued change.


This might be the place to mention the Concerto for Horn & Hardart by PDQ Bach.


I remember occasionally going to a 42nd Street Horn & Hardart in the early 80s. It had been renovated in a last-ditch effort to stay relevant. Most everything was in that 1980s neon version of Art Deco. They still had those ornate brass coffee taps shaped like lions’ heads. Pull the handle and the lion barfs coffee into your cup. I was too young for coffee but I found that endlessly entertaining.


PDQ Bach’s Hardart was built in part by composer Philip Glass.


There were modern automats in europe when I visited a decade ago. I especially remember how inviting the one in Amsterdan’s Schiphol station was when I was hungry and didn’t want to decode a menu. Most of the tourist restaurants used faded photographs of their food to help people decide, so seeing the actual food you are going to eat felt decidedly civilized.


This concept fascinated me as a kid in the Sixties when I saw them in books and movies, but I don’t recall ever actually eating at one. One thing to remember too is that in 1933 a nickel had the same purchasing power as 92¢ today, and that a typical wage was 25¢ an hour.


Much better than a vending macine, but not easily integrated into suburban-shithole-andia.


I remember someplace in Tulsa in the 60’s that went all ‘modern’ by having phones on the table so you could place your order. Really, just a gimmick since there still had to be waitstaff to deliver it. But I think it made us feel classy since, well, there were phones on the table. Even if the only thing you could use them for was ordering. But, it was nice living in the future while it lasted.


And today, there are similar restaurants that have you place your order via iPads on the table. But again, actual people still have to deliver the food.


There was a place in Huntington, LI called Hamburger Choo-Choo.

Three guesses as to how your food was delivered.

My brother went there for a birthday, once. Never ate there myself.


In some rural communities in Japan, they have mini automats for farmers to easily sell stuff, but mostly eggs. I never really bought much from them since I didn’t cook much at the time, but now I find the idea pretty cool.


Japan seems to have leapfrogged the US in automat technology.


Loved FEBO when I was in Amsterdam:


From Easy Living (1937)


British Pathe newsreel, “Help Yourself”, 1931.


I didn’t realise that automats were real things, I only ever saw one in the film Dark City.

Oh great, now I want to watch Dark City.


I used to go to a laundromat in Brookline Massachusetts that had a modern equivalent of a “nickel thrower” - you could give him a five, ten, or twenty dollar bill - he’d reach into a bucket of quarters and give you the exact amount of change required, all while reading the book he was reading for his graduate studies.


There is a burger place in KC named Fritz’s that has phones on the table to place your order. The food is delivered via a “train” that drops a tray from a track on to a platform that lowers to the table. Drinks and some other food items are still delivered by staff, though. The food is good, and my daughter loves the train that runs around the restaurant.