When the first Horn & Hardart Automat appeared in New York City, in 1912, it ushered in the modern era of fast food. Customers would step up to vast banks of small windowed niches, put in a nickel or two, twirl a knob, and pull out a steaming cup of coffee, ham sandwich, hot dish such as mac and cheese, or piece of apple pie. Crews of white-clad women behind the windows kept the niches freshly stocked, so satisfaction was instantaneous. By the middle of the century, there were 42 Horn & Hardarts in the city; the last one, on 42nd Street just east of Grand Central, closed in 1991. These were magical places where one could eat cheaply and well, and for a while, they seemed like the most cosmopolitan way to dine.
The concept has been intermittently revived, most recently in Jersey City among the office buildings and shopping malls of Newport. Called Automat Kitchen, the restaurant is a sliver of a space, with windows looking out onto the street, a scatter of tables inside, and a few places to sit in the courtyard out front. The center of attention is an anteroom where 20 windows, much larger than those at the original Horn & Hardart, are arrayed in two rows. It serves, in a manner not quite matching that of the city’s original automats, commonplaces like chicken parm sandwiches, chef salads, and bowls of oatmeal — a genre that the website describes as “comfort classics reinvented.”
When I arrived on Saturday afternoon, I was a little disappointed to discover the food wasn’t waiting for me in the windows; instead, it’s made to order. To select a dish, one has to stand at a touchscreen terminal and go through the rigmarole of inputting full name, email address, phone, credit card info, and other details, in addition to selecting from a menu that can run to 30 items, many with multiple options. The menu had been pared down somewhat, a clerk told me, and the dish I most wanted to try — the Frito pie burrito, having just written about Frito pies — was unavailable.
I dived into the rest of the menu, which is credited to chef Quirino Silva, a restaurant consultant based in Austin. I placed my order for three dishes: chicken pot pie ($12.99), miso roasted broccoli ($6.99), and a breakfast taco, with optional chorizo and cheese ($4.74). The waffle sandwich with scrambled eggs and breakfast sausage, a wedge salad with bacon and tomato, and a Massaman pot roast in red curry with sweet potatoes also sounded intriguing.
While the old Horn & Hardart provided food instantaneously — something that would be a boon in an age when you have to stand in line for nearly everything — my wait for lunch was almost 15 minutes. I peered through the galley window, where the small kitchen seemed eclipsed by a giant monitor and other electronic equipment. When my order was ready, my name rolled across a video screen in the anteroom and then appeared on window No. 6. Next, my phone received a text message giving me a secret code that would open my window.
Once I punched in the code, the window swung open, and I found a plastic bag filled with a substantial amount of carryout packaging, some apparently biodegradable, some obviously not. I carried it to one of the outdoor tables, which offered a pleasant view of a neighborhood that might be anywhere on the planet.
Though not inexpensive, my chicken pot pie was deliriously good, not stinting on chicken or gravy. The pie incorporated both dark and light meat torn in shreds; the gravy was beige-colored and thick, like the kind you might find poured over a chicken-fried steak in Texas. There were a few more diced vegetables than usually occur in a Swanson’s chicken pot pie, which lent an aura of semi-virtuousness. The “crust” was merely a puff pastry tossed on top, but it sufficed.
The broccoli was also good, though not charred as promised; it seemed steamed. There was a trickle of pale miso in the bottom, which imparted more sweetness than a beany flavor. Still, it was delicious, and if you require vegetables at your meal, this is a tasty way to consume them.
The breakfast taco did not fare as well. The touchscreen had offered a choice of flour or corn tortillas, and, having lived in Central Texas, I knew the only choice was flour. But this tortilla was way too small, and comically failed to wrap around the entire assemblage of egg, cubed sweet potato, chorizo, and cheese — of which there wasn’t much cheese. The array was dominated by sweet potatoes.
Still, I had an enjoyable meal, and appreciated that the food was made to my exact specifications, but I missed the original automats, where the food really was fast food, and you were allowed to pick the best-looking example of what you wanted by examining every recess. The appeal of Horn & Hardart lay not in its prominent windows — though they were beautiful in an Industrial Age sort of way — but in its appearance of bounty, as though your every need was anticipated by barely glimpsed attendants. The old place also permitted you to eat without negotiating a complicated computer program, which is what many of us do all day at work already.
As a vision of the future, the old Horn & Hardart Automat was unsurpassed, pointing to skies filled with flying cars and effortless housework undertaken by robots. But, besides some pretty decent food, the new Automat Kitchen suggests a future of long waits, contactless carryout dining, and more staring into the dead eye of the computer. The cost of my meal plus tax and tip: $30 and change.