There was nothing like the coffee at the Automat
Its aroma and its flavor was supreme
From a silver dolphin spout, the coffee came right out
Not to mention at the end a little spurt of cream

-Mel Brooks

Go back in time to an era that revolutionized the restaurant industry. The Horn & Hardart chain founded in 1888, featured little windows that showcased the various cafeteria-style foods available for consumption from their signature Salisbury Steak and mac and cheese to a wonderful selection of pies. You placed your nickels in the slot, turned a knob, the see-thru window resembling a P.O. Box would open, and you would grab your entrée. The Automat restaurants became a staple for millions of New Yorkers and Philadelphians during the early 20th century. Director Lisa Hurwitz examines the culinary sensation by interviewing celebrities who share their cherished memories including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks who wrote a song for the documentary.

While most of us never had the opportunity to eat at an Automat restaurant, there’s a good chance that you remember the unique cafeterias from their various appearances in movies. Joan Crawford drank a cup of their delicious and affordable coffee in 1934’s “Sadie McKee.” Doris Day had a conversation through one of the food windows in 1962’s “That Touch of Mink” which costarred Cary Grant and Audrey Meadows, and of course who could forget the brawl that broke out at the Automat in 1937’s “Easy Living” with Jean Arthur and Ray Milland.

I’m a lifelong Texan with an affinity for New York. I began traveling there several times a year in the 80s and when my wife and I decided to get married we had a small ceremony in Central Park. Still, I regret never eating at a Horn & Hardart restaurant. Yes, this was past their heyday but the last one didn’t close until 1991, so I still had a chance but missed it.

The closest experience Southerners have to the Automat experience would be Luby’s cafeterias. The chain, which struggles to remain open today, never featured any ornate décor, tiny windows, or grandiose interiors, but like the H&H restaurants, it became a gathering place for families, coworkers, men, women, and people from all walks of life who checked their inhibitions at the door for the sake of delicious food in the style of home-cooked meals.

When the Automat restaurants were at their peak, segregation still existed, and women were just entering the workforce, yet none of that played a factor at the Automat. Everyone was treated as an equal. The rich and the poor, citizens and immigrants, sat next to each while enjoying a nickel coffee poured from a dolphin head spout. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart felt everyone deserved a delicious meal at an inexpensive price served in an elaborate setting, which explains why their restaurants resembled palaces with grand entrances, marble and brass fixtures, and luxurious interiors.

“The Automat” features a trove of old photographs, video footage, and wonderful interviews to tell the Horn and Hardart story. Family members and former employees share their memories as do celebrities none as prominent as Mel Brooks who acted as a catalyst for the documentary opening doors for Hurwitz who was then able to secure other celebs for the film. Brooks anchors the doc serving at times as narrator. His joyous and playful nature intact that culminates with the performance of “At the Automat” a quirky song he wrote specifically for the film.

I spoke with Hurwitz, who grew up in Los Angeles and became a cafeteria fan during her college days, asking her what she thought about food and cafeteria settings bringing people together. “There are these situations in modern living where we’re more likely to end up talking to each other. In the elevator. On the airplane. On the subway. In line. At a party. The bar. A communal table definitely falls into this list. And food, it perks people up, it loosens them up. It’s just so natural to us, making conversation while we eat. I don’t know the reason why, but we do, even with strangers.”

I told her “The Automat” reminded me of high school. The cafeteria was the one place where it was a lot easier to make friends or speak to someone. Outside that section of the school, you wouldn’t dare approach some of your classmates.

Take movies for example. In “Mean Girls” Cady is accepted by The Plastics. In “Napoléon Dynamite” our protagonist befriends Pedro who shares his tots with a stranger, and in “Back to the Future” we see Marty befriend the younger version of his dad. In “The Automat” there’s footage of people, different colors, races, and heritage coming together for a good meal. And this was during a turbulent time in history.

“That’s some excellent movie parallels you raise! The automat was pretty hard to argue with. It was a wonderful atmosphere, excellent food, excellent prices. Everyone liked it. They all had different favorite dishes, but everyone agreed on the place. I think that’s why it drew the diversity it did. It was a very elegant, lovely thing and it was available to everyone. So, they took advantage of that fact. For decades that rang true. Eventually, it became a seedy place, but in its heyday, it was a wonderful place to go.”

On Mel Brooks, Hurwitz said she knew he would play a pivotal role in the documentary after their interview, “It ended up being a 54-minute interview. The full interview is going to be on our Kino Lorber DVD that’s coming out on September 20th. Also, there is a brand-new introduction by Mel on the extras!” She also called his song contribution “Incredible!”

The documentary screens at 2 pm today at the historic Texas Theatre with a Q&A via Zoom featuring Hurwitz moderated by Bart Weiss after the film. It’s co-presented by 3 Stars Cinema whose mission is to create a forum for screening contemporary and classic Jewish film in the Dallas area. The screenings will portray the diversity of the Jewish experience, its culture, practice, and history, through the lens of filmmakers. Tickets are available online here

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.