Three nickels in a slot…and Dinner is Served
The first time I went to the famous Horn & Hardart Automat it was 1941 and I was eight years old. I was fascinated with the bank of tiny glass windows that protected an array of delicious food dishes. It seemed like magic to me. As soon as you made a selection and inserted your nickels the glass door would pop open and you could retrieve your food. Then, almost as quickly, the food would reappear again…ready for the next hungry customer. (I didn’t know that there was a kitchen staff behind the windows refilling them as needed.)
For a few nickels you could actually get the equivalent of a small dinner. Specialties of the house would be Macaroni and Cheese, Boston Baked Beans or Chicken Pot Pie. Rice pudding was a favorite, as were all types of pies and cakes and my Dad told me it was the best place in town to get a fresh cup of coffee. If I recall correctly I opted for a sandwich and a fancy desert on that first visit.
When I moved to NY City in 1957 and got a job at WABC Radio I couldn’t wait to see if the Automat was still in business. To my great delight, when I got to Third Ave. and 42nd St., I saw that it was ! I had forgotten that there was also a cafeteria line, as well as the machines that dispensed the food and I had a great time getting re-acclimated. I could have sworn that the cashier was the same lady that I had seen 16 years before. She sat primly behind a change booth in the center of the restaurant and dispensed nickels at a rapid rate.
As you can see from the picture of the front entrance to Horn & Hardart’s the ambience was Art Deco. It was a fun place and a nice change from the stuffy, “old lady” dining rooms such as “Schraffts”. Self-service was a boon and you didn’t have to contend with tips or a staff of waiters or waitresses hovering at your table.
Although the prices had increased it was still a great bargain in 1957 and most entrees were under a dollar. Nickels were the only coins accepted and the tinkling sound of them being dropped into the slots made a pleasant background. The clientele was eclectic and the “haves” and the “have-nots” all assembled to partake of the excellent food...prepared fresh every day.
As I understand it, the Horn & Hardart Automat in NY City was the longest hold-out and stayed in business until 1991. It is now a “Gap”. It’s nostalgic to realize that we will probably never again see a time when a handful of nickels and the twist of a wrist is all that was needed to buy a good square meal.