The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘The Automat’ documentary looks back fondly on a defunct eatery

Lisa Hurwitz’s film recalls the heyday of the Horn & Hardart automat, where fresh food could be found behind little glass doors

(2.5 stars)

For some audiences, the title of “The Automat” will tell them nearly everything they need to know; for others, the word will read like ancient Aramaic. Both constituencies will be gratified by Lisa Hurwitz’s crisp, straightforward documentary, which tells the story of a bygone and beloved institution that revolutionized dining and embodied American ideals at their most egalitarian and pluralistic.

A brief primer: In 1902, food service entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart introduced a new concept in Philadelphia: a restaurant in which customers could feast their eyes on a range of freshly made entrees, side dishes and desserts sitting behind small glass doors; put coins into a slot; and pull out the delicacy of their choice — usually accompanied by a perfect cup of coffee that came out of a dolphin-headed spigot and cost a nickel.

The new emporium was called an automat, and for nearly a century it was a fixture of city life in Philadelphia and New York, where Horn & Hardart signs became a ubiquitous feature of the urban cityscape. In “The Automat,” Hurwitz and writer Michael Levine trace the rise and fall of Horn & Hardart, illuminating not just a surprisingly compelling corporate history, but a facet of American culture that feels both brimmingly optimistic and thoroughly extinct.

Tapping the memories of such automat fans as former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell, and descendants of Horn & Hardart founders and executives, Hurwitz makes a convincing case for why the automat matters: Not only did its low prices and high quality give Depression-era Americans access to decent food, but the founders’ attention to exquisite detail — making lavish use of chrome, marble, brass and design elements inspired by baroque Italian sculpture — bestowed an air of occasion upon an otherwise dull lunch hour. One of the most enlightening voices in “The Automat” belongs to Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who reveals that a childhood visit to Horn & Hardart inspired the idea for his coffee shop chain, in which he has sought to invest similar values of “theater, excitement, surprise and delight.”

As charming as these interviews are, Hurwitz’s most passionate goad and witness is Mel Brooks, who waxes rhapsodic in his Proustian reveries about his favorite treats at Horn & Hardart, which became famous for its macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans and that flawlessly brewed New Orleans-style coffee. “The Automat” doesn’t break any formal ground; its visual language hews to the conventional format of archival materials and talking-head interviews. But it tells an important, unexpectedly moving story. Seen through the lens of contemporary tribalism, the demotic genius of the automat — where heiresses and celebrities shared marble-topped tables with secretaries and construction workers — serves as a reminder of what American enterprise is capable of at its most creative and idealistic. That’s worth a lot of nickels.

Unrated. At area theaters. Contains nothing objectionable. 79 minutes.

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