“You should have seen this Automat,” reminisced the elderly man who sold me this postcard. “You could sit for hours with a cup of coffee and look out onto Times Square through those huge picture windows.”
It must have been something. At their peak of popularity, New York had at least 50 Automats, filled with little slots containing sandwiches, mac and cheese, pie, and other foods, each to be had for just a coin or two. The one below was at Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets.
William Grimes sums up the appeal of the Automat in his entertaining 2009 book Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.
“As the Automat worked itself into the fabric of the city, it came to represent a particular kind of American experience,” writes Grimes. “It was ostentatiously democratic, for one thing. Lacking the gatekeepers associated with traditional restaurants, it attracted diners from every social level.”
“A bit of verse in the Sun, printed in the Depression year of 1933, caught the spirit precisely:
‘Said the technocrat
To the Plutocrat
To the autocrat
And the Democrat—
Let’s all go eat at the Automat!’”
Here’s a similar postcard, and a memory from Patti Smith, about getting hit on by Allen Ginsberg at a downtown Automat in the 1970s.