From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler offered me many things as a sixth-grade girl growing up in a decidedly non-cosmopolitan California town. For one, it introduced me to a New York I would seek out 20 years later, one of rushing taxis, storied museums, and children who weren't afraid to cash out a piggy bank to follow their dreams. It also introduced me to one food fad I'm still sorry I never got to experience: the Horn and Hardart Automats.
The idea of opening a polished chrome hatch and lifting out a plate of hot macaroni and cheese, the empty space only to be filled with another plate by a fresh-faced lass in apron and hairnet, seemed to me to be the absolute height of man's ingenuity.
Rows upon rows of blue-plate meatloaf specials, halved grapefruits with maraschino cherries, and spigots of milk (chocolate and otherwise) appealed to both my food preferences and my strong sense that I had been born about 50 years too late. When I arrived in New York after college and realized I missed the last Automat by about 25 years, I dissolved my sorrows in dollar pizza slices and potato knishes.
After reading up about the Horn and Hardart company, what really strikes you is the insistence by the Horns and Hardarts on high quality standards for their food. Beginning in the 1910s, when the first automatic restaurants were opened in Philadelphia, co-founder Joe Horn initiated a Sample Table. Every afternoon at 12:30 on the dot, a group of company executives and branch managers gathered at a long wooden table at company headquarters to taste pies, soups, baked beans, and sometimes multiple brands of milk or butter.
Even the lowly nickel cup of coffee was treated with reverence, as a cornerstone of the Horn and Hardart brand. It was the coffee that built the Automat: Frank Hardart, a German immigrant, worked in New Orleans cafes during his youth, and would roast and grind the day's coffee before customers arrived. In a country where boiled coffee was often clarified with egg shells or stretched with sawdust, this fresh, French-drip method was revolutionary. Hardart brought the technique to the Automats, insisting that employees discard coffee that had gone unsold for more than two hours.
Automat menus reveal much about eating habits of the time, but more about the detail-obsessed company as a whole. Oyster and clam stews were made "with milk for $.35, with half & half for $.45, and with cream for $.55". In New York and Philadelphia, trucks were dispatched in the early mornings to go to market to fetch the fresh meats and produce needed to supply hundred of restaurants. If an ingredient for a certain dish wasn't available, it just wasn't on the menu. English muffins were to be cut with forks, never knives, and day-old food was given to day-old shops, not reheated and sold at full price.
With all of this focus on the small things, it's little wonder that the Automats didn't make it. Changing lifestyles drove families from cities to suburbs, and fast food chains began their incursion onto the American lunch plate.
Horn and Hardart began to close restaurants, and those that remained open were so expensive to maintain, the once-polished interiors grew dingy and dated. The last Philadelphia restaurant closed in 1969, while the sole Manhattan holdout lasted as a kitschy party room and tourist stop until 1991.
But the food of the Automat lives on, in memories, books, films, and recipes. Baked beans might not be the fanciest, but they're typical of the low-cost, stick to your ribs type of food that kept thousands of urbanites going throughout two world wars and a Depression.
About the author: Stephanie Butler is a freelance cook and writer whose proudest accomplishment is eating 64 oysters in a single sitting. She tweets what she eats at @brunoiserie.