Tag Archives: automat

Restaurant-ing with Soviet humorists

littlegoldenamericaJPG1937coverNot that they found American restaurants especially funny.

Au contraire. On their car trip across the continent in 1935/1936 writers Ilya Ilf and Eugene Petrov, billed as “Soviet Mark Twains,” observed what they regarded a nation of joyless folks who ate tasteless food in restaurants designed for speed and efficiency. As they put it, “The process of eating was just as superbly rationalized as the production of automobiles or of typewriters.”

The acme of rationalization in their opinion was the Automat where a wall of metal and glass boxes filled with sandwiches and pie separated customers from staff. They preferred the Childs restaurant chain with table service. “At Childs one receives the same clean handsome food as in a cafeteria or an automat. Only there one is not deprived of the small satisfaction of looking at a menu, saying, ‘H’m,’ asking the waitress whether the veal is good, and receiving the answer: ‘Yes, sir!’”

littlegoldenAmerica1936AutomatBereniceAbbott

They did not visit luxury restaurants, preferring commonplace eateries where average Americans ate, such as cafeterias, drug store lunch counters, and roadside “dine & dance” halls. They also went to a football game, an Indian reservation, and other quintessentially American sites and events that they described in a book published in the Soviet Union, and then translated for Americans as Little Golden America (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937).

In Chapter 4 (Appetite Departs While Eating) they asked, “How does it happen that the richest country in the world, a country of grain growers and cattle raisers, of gold and remarkable industry, a country which has sufficient resources to create a paradise, cannot give the people tasty bread, fresh meat, real butter, and ripe tomatoes?” Not surprisingly, as dedicated socialists they located the cause of the problem in capitalism which reaped higher profits in shipping frozen beef and unripened California tomatoes cross country than in local food production.

By contrast, they cited Soviet Commissar of Food Anastos Mikoyan who was at that time spearheading a Stalinist reform campaign of joyous eating and champagne for everyone to replace the habitual diet of cabbage soup and mush. Mikoyan’s office produced a landmark cookbook with color photos of cosmopolitan meals (The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, 1939). Sitting in an American cafeteria in 1935, Ilf and Petrov felt that a Mikoyan speech that declared food in a socialist country must bring joy to its eaters “sounded like poetry to us.” But the truth was that Soviet leaders, Mikoyan included, were admirers of the U.S. rationalized system of production, including its food.

During their American travels Ilf and Petrov learned to drink tomato juice – well-peppered to their taste — as an appetizer, but could not adjust to eating melon before dinner, despite its “place of honor among American hors d’oeuvres.”

LittleGoldenAmericaBartellDrugStoreSeattle1936

They frequently made fun of drugstore meals that were numbered #1, #2, etc., and whose prices were based solely on quantity. “If in Dinner #2 a course called ‘country sausage’ consists of three chopped off sausages, then in Dinner #4 there will be six chopped off sausages, but the taste will be exactly the same.” When they ate at Bernstein’s fish restaurant in San Francisco, they were happy that the dinner there made up for that day’s drugstore lunch #3.

Seriously, why did they keep eating in drug stores, especially in a city of restaurants such as San Francisco? They could have tried Chinese food, or gone to a tea room or any number of places.

littlegoldenAmericaTopsy'sRoost

In my opinion they hit bottom when they visited a palace of fun outside San Francisco known as Topsy’s Roost, a “dine and dance” joint whose corny racist theme was based on shacks, pickaninnies, and fried chicken. Were their Soviet readers envious when they read, “For fifty cents [a man of moderate means] gets a portion of chicken, and, having eaten it, dances until he is on the verge of collapsing. After he is tired of dancing, he and his girl . . . ride down a polished wooden chute placed in the hall especially for entertainment-seeking chicken eaters.”

The book was said to be popular in Russia. I’d love to know what readers thought about America after reading it.

© Jan Whitaker, 2015

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The Automat, an East Coast oasis

automatlogoIn the late 19th century owners of large popular-price restaurants began to look for ways to cut costs and eliminate waiters. The times were hospitable to mechanical solutions and in 1902 automatic restaurants opened in Philadelphia (pictured below) and New York. In both cities, a clever coin-operated set-up – and a name – were imported from Germany. There was, however, a striking difference between the two operations. The Philadelphia Automat, run by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, served no alcoholic beverages, while the New York Automat, true to its European origins, did.

automatphil3051The Automat in NYC was owned by James Harcombe, who in the 1890s had acquired Sutherland’s, one of the city’s old landmark restaurants located on Liberty Street. The Harcombe Restaurant Company’s Automat was at 830 Broadway, near Union Square. Reportedly costing more than $75,000 to install, it was a marvel of invention decorated with inlaid mirror, richly colored woods, and German proverbs. It served forth sandwiches and soups, dishes such as fish chowder and lobster Newburg, and ice creams. Beer, cocktails, and cordials flowed from its faucets. A bit too freely. The Automat’s staff had to keep a sharp lookout for young boys dropping coins into the liquor slots.

While the Philadelphia Automat thrived, the New York counterpart ran into financial difficulties shortly after opening, possibly because of a poor location. It advertised in an NYU student magazine in 1904: “Europe’s Unique Electric Self-serving Device for Lunches and Beverages. No Waiting. No Tipping. Open Evenings Until Midnight.” The disappearance of the Harcombe Automat ca. 1910 seemed to fulfill pessimistic views that an automatic restaurant couldn’t succeed in New York, allegedly because machinery would malfunction and customers would cheat by feeding it slugs.

1912bdwyautomatUndeterred by the first Automat’s fate, Horn & Hardart moved into New York in 1912, opening an Automat of their own manufacture at Broadway and 46th Street (pictured). It turned out that New Yorkers did indeed use slugs, especially in 1935 when 219,000 were inserted into H&H slots. But despite this, the automatic restaurant prospered, expanded, and became a New York institution. By 1918 there were nearly 50 Automats in the two major cities, and eventually a few in Boston. Horn & Hardart tried Automats in Chicago in the 1920s but they were a failure. On an inspection tour in Chicago, Joseph Horn noted problems such as weak coffee, “figs not right,” and “lem. meringue very bad.”

Part of the lore of the Automat derives from the unexpected forms of sociability it inspired among strangers. Others found in it a unique entertaining concept. Jack Benny hosted a black tie dinner in a New York Automat for 500 friends in 1960, but he was scarcely the first to come up with the idea. As early as 1903 a Philadelphia hostess rented that city’s Automat for a soirée, hiring a caterer to replace meatloaf and coffee with terrapin and champagne. In 1917 a New York bohemian group calling themselves “The Tramps” took over the Broadway Automat for a dance party, inserting in the food compartments numbered slips corresponding to dance partners. For most customers, though, the Automat meant cheap food and possibly a leisurely place to kill time and watch the parade of humanity.

automatmysteries3041The Automats hit their peak in the mid-20th century. Slugs aside, the Depression years were better for business than the wealthier 1960s and 1970s when some units were converted to Burger Kings. In 1933 H&H hired Francis Bourdon, the French chef at the Sherry Netherland (fellow chefs called him “L’Escoffier des Automats”). In 1969 Philadelphia’s first Automat closed, being declared “a museum piece, inefficient and slow, in a computerized world.” That left two in Philadelphia and eight in NYC. The last New York Automat, at East 42nd and 3rd Ave, closed in 1991.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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