Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat

The last Automat in New York City closed its doors in 1991, and I wish I had the foresight back then to give the hot coffee and much-heralded slices of pie a try.

Instead, I’ll have to suffice with memoirs and stories from old-timers, who happily recall the more than 40 Automats scattered across the city in the middle of the 20th century—their steel and glass sleekness, their comfort, and how sitting in one made a newcomer feel a little more like a real New Yorker.

[Sixth Avenue and 57th Street Automat postcard from 1935: MCNY F2011.33.1809]

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39 Responses to “Hot coffee and pie at a Sixth Avenue Automat”

  1. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    Ah 57th & 6th, had the best Salisbury steak anywhere! But for me, back in those days, the usual Automat was the one on 14th St, off Irving Plaza, even had two floors. And no one complained that all you had was a toothpick and a glass of water.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I was born too late to enjoy that one, but I know it was next to Julian’s pool hall, another venue I would have liked to have visited.

      • Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

        It was across the street from Julian’s. 14th St at the time, between 3rd & 4th Ave, was lined with seven or eight shoe stores standing right next to each other. In the period after JFK was killed they started cracking down on kids who were supposed to be in school and not in a pool hall. In one round up I kept complaining that I was after some shoes and came here by mistake. Boy, did I look sad, and about to cry. An officer believed me and said, “Get outta here, kid.” Hell, was I out of Julian’s fast! Never did get any shoes…

  2. keenanpatrick424 Says:

    In late 60’s knew it as the 57th St.Automat.You neglected to note the art deco style.It had two levels.In high school I went after school to Nat’l Conference of Christian.and Jews.We experienced Gestalt therapy , encounter group.Very late 60’s vibe.High school kids from all over the city were there.Afterwards we’d go to the automat.There were so many of us(20-30) they opened the upstairs for us with the warning to behave ourselves and throw nothing down and no weed smoking.We would be there for hrs..The automat was a place for all – young, old, well off,down on their heels, native new yorkers, tourists.Sadly an egalitarian establishment with great decor and “new york” ambiance does not exist in the city now

  3. ksbeth Says:

    I would love to go to one now

    • Jim Says:

      Maybe as a one-time experience. The one I went to on 14th street was seedy and grungy and the Pies and food behind the glass door were Yechhhy at-best.

  4. greg chown Says:

    My first visit to New York was in 1970 when i was 10. My mother took me and we may have stayed at the New Yorker Hotel. I’m happy to say that my first impressions of the city are more Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver than the current corporate landscape. Our trip included the usual tourist stops, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Radio City Music Hall and most importantly, a trip to the Automat. My mother also bought me a Beatles record.

  5. Marioyn Says:

    This unique automat on W. 57th with art deco decor was there for a long time. After the automat closed, it evolved into a seafood restaurant owned by a restaurant group. Then they must’ve been bought out. It was sadly torn down, and a truly ugly glass and steel bldg. was built in it’s place.
    The other one I remember was on the corner of Third Ave. and 42nd St. I recall buying a delcious cupcake there in the front near the revolving door in the 1980’s. Other times, I had coffee or tea and a pie slice or a sandwich. They also had a hot buffet with great mac n cheese and baked beans. My mother and I met my uncle once in the late 1960’s at the automat across from Bryant Park next to Stern’s Dept. Store.

    I believe the Automat first opened in Philky, then Times Sq. The Museum if the City if New York had an exhibit in the Hirn and Hardhart Automats including there recipes which can be Googled, too.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Marioyn, yep, Philly first. But I still think of it as a 20th century New York City institution.

  6. VirginiaLB Says:

    I didn’t realize how lucky I was–who does when you’re a kid?–but my father made a point of taking me to ‘real New York’ places and explaining their part in our home town’s story. One of those was the Automat–don’t know which one. Dazzled by all those desserts, it was like being in Santa’s workshop but for sugar, not toys. Putting the nickels in and opening the little doors was a thrill too. Thanks, Dad. (And thanks ENY for another great post.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Virginia! It amazes me how many people have a memory to share about the Automat. I wish I did, but my parents have told me many stories.

  7. Stuart F Says:

    the automat was the first place I ever ate outside my home -it was a magical place -I will never forget the change maker who would spill out exactly 20 nickels in an instant when you gave him a dollar

  8. Ray Laskowitz Says:

    Old timers, indeed. My mom or grandmother took us to one every time that we cam over on “the train” from Brooklyn. If memory serves, it was located around 14th Street and Broadway.

  9. petey Says:

    oh, i’m an old-timer now < : D
    i was in the 42nd and 3rd automat often enough, can't remember what i ate (pie, surely) but i do remember dropping coins in the slots and the smooth, solid quality of the ware.

  10. Susan Siskind Says:

    I loved going to the 42nd & third automat when I worked across the street in the eighties. Turned into a GAP. Pathetic that no business saved the wall of slots and fixtures!

    • mitzanna Says:

      That’s the last one that closed in NYC. Philadelphia had one left after but I’m sure it closed soon after the one on Third Ave.

    • Buzz Says:

      My beloved grandmother would take us as a special treat. My recollection is that my standard childhood order was a peanut butter sandwich on raisin bread and a hot chocolate–and a cupcake to take home. (I was disappointed that hot chocolate didn’t come from the magical lion-head coffee dispensers.) And Susan Siskind, do not despair: no business may have saved every wall of slots, but when I was at the Smithsonian in DC many years ago, they had a preserved wall from one of the Philadelphia H & Hs.

    • Beth Says:

      I think there are collectors out there who do own some of the automat dispensers.

    • Andrew Porter Says:

      Many of the dispensers have been saved and are in museums. An exhibit, “Lunch Hour NYC” at the NY Public Library’s main building a few years ago included an entire wall of the dispensers. See:

      http://tinyurl.com/9thmzsa

  11. Michael Leddy Says:

    It will take more than this to make me an old-timer, I hope. But:

    I remember sitting in an Automat with a friend sometime in the early 1980s, having cake and coffee. Or pie and coffee. Or coffee. I wanted to go to the Automat, but once inside, I found it terribly depressing — kind of empty, only a handful of older people. We were in our twenties. Now I guess I’d be one of those older people, only there’s no Automat.

  12. David H Lippman Says:

    I remember eating at Automats when I was a kid…the one at 3rd Avenue and 42nd Stree, if memory serves.

  13. Barbara A Malley The A is part of my facebook address) Says:

    I lived in suffolk county then. My bike club had a rie to Manhattan not many dys before this automat closed. we had lunch there on the way to a longer ride. I was 56 at the time.

  14. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Does anyone know why automats went out of style? I had no idea there were so many at their peak. In the screwball movie classic “Easy Living” (1937), there’s a very funny scene featuring Jean Arthur and Ray Milland where all the doors of the automat fly open and the Depression-era customers run wild getting free food.

  15. Andrew Porter Says:

    In the 1950s, when my mother would visit her lawyer/brother-in-law at his offices in the Lincoln Building on East 42nd Street in Manhattan, we’d eat in the Automat at 42nd and Park Avenue. I remember the hot chocolate pouring from the lion’s head dispensers!

    Horn & Hardart morphed into Burger King, and many of the locations then became Burger Kings.

    Until just a year or two ago, there was an old “Automat” sign without the neon, on Lawrence Street in downtown Brooklyn.

  16. Dick Lupoff Says:

    Cary Grant (briefly), Doris Day (we just lost her at age 97) . . . what fun! I was born in Brooklyn, lived in Queens, than for very sad reasons wound up in a dreadful boarding school in New Jersey. I used to listen to Automat commercials on the radio, along with “Less Work for Mother” ready-to-eat food shops. Oh, how I yearned to eat at an Automat. Never got to do it, but there’s a fantastic Asian buffet in Hayward (CA) where I’m headed for lunch in about an hour with longtime fan-friend Mick McInerney. No quite an Automat, but as close as I can get to it.

  17. Dick Lupoff Says:

    . . . and was that Jayne Meadows working at the Automat?

  18. Tom B Says:

    In today’s society and ilk, an Automat would not work. It would be so disgusting inside to patronize unlike the ones back in the day. I get some New Yorkers pine for the past, but for something else.

  19. Ryan Says:

    The Automat was a favorite of this “old timer.” After the dentist, my mother took me to the one across from Bryant Park. They all had regular cafeteria style hot tables with servers…so I had peas and mashed potatoes and milk ( I drank coffee at home, but not in public) Later in life summer of 69 (While others were at Woodstock) I’d be sent from downtown Brooklyn office to Nassau St Manhattan to deliver documents. The only part of the job that was good. I’d stop at the Nassau St Automat (not street level but downstairs) for baked beans. Their mac and cheese behind the windows was equally good. I still miss them.

  20. frank dicapua Says:

    it was always a great experience the food was simple but delightful

  21. collikat Says:

    The last time I was in Holland, (about 5 years ago), these automats were still in use. I didn’t see any with places to sit, the ones I saw were set up like Take Aways. You could select your frikandell, or other sausage roll like pie, from one of the dispensers, pay your money and open the door to take out the food.

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