‘The Automat’ Tells the Story of the Little Restaurant That Could

Ulises Duenas


There’s a certain magic about our favorite restaurants. They’re places where we’ve made memories with friends and family and might serve as a source of comfort. While many restaurants have been long forgotten by now, there’s one chain that resonated with many important people that is, unfortunately, no longer around: The Automat. The story and impressions this unique establishment left behind are told in the new documentary The Automat by Lisa Hurwitz


The concept of the Automat was simple. You went in with some nickels and were able to choose from a selection of affordable foods and desserts from behind small windows. You go up, put your coins in, turn a knob, and get your plate. Hurwitz interviews people like Mel Brooks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elliot Gould and others and edits in historical footage and photos -- standard fare for a documentary like this. Brooks is a constant highlight through the whole thing. His stories and jokes add a lot of life to what is sometimes a dry production. 



One interesting aspect of the documentary is when Ruth Bader Ginsberg and former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode talk about how the Automat was a place of equality even during times of segregation. No one was denied a seat there, even the homeless, and it allowed women and people of color a place to gather and feel safe.


The Automat’s policy of affordable food that didn’t skimp on quality made it a favorite of a lot of people who didn’t have much money. Even the Great Depression didn’t have that much of an effect on the chain, which was mostly limited to the Philadelphia and New York areas. Those interesting details give the viewer a better historical context for the Automat and why it resonated so much with past generations. Even the creator of Starbucks Coffee was inspired by it.



The biggest criticism I have of the film is that while the story of the Automat is interesting and while the celebrity interviews add more gravitas, it’s still hard to justify its 90-minute runtime. I can tell that the restaurant meant a lot to a specific group of people, but even at the beginning of the film, Mel Brooks jokes about how someone is actually planning to make a documentary about the Automat.


The story of this humble restaurant chain that was eaten up by inflation and the fast-food wave is one worth hearing, but it might serve better for some as something to watch in the background while exercising or playing a game. It has a relaxing and sentimental tone, and it might make you wish that a place like the Automat still existed today.



Author Bio:

Ulises Duenas is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--A Slice of Pie Productions

--Lawrence Fried



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