The documentary “The Automat” returns with tenderness to the defunct restaurant chain Horn & Hardart.

(2.5 stars)

For some audiences, the title of “The Automat” will tell them almost everything they need to know; for others, the word will read like Old Aramaic. Both constituencies will be blessed by Lisa Hurwitz’s clear and direct documentary, which tells the story of a bygone and beloved institution that revolutionized the restaurant business and embodied American ideals in their most egalitarian and pluralistic form.

A Brief Introduction: In 1902, restaurant entrepreneurs Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart introduced a new concept to Philadelphia: a restaurant in which patrons could feast on a range of appetizers, side dishes and desserts freshly prepared seated behind small glass doors; put coins in a slot; and whip out the delicacy of their choice – usually accompanied by a perfect cup of coffee that came out of a dolphin-headed tap and cost a nickel.

The new emporium was called an automaton, and for nearly a century it was part of urban life in Philadelphia and New York, where Horn & Hardart signs became a ubiquitous feature of the 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 seems both overwhelmingly optimistic. and completely extinguished.

Tapping into the memories of automaton fans such as former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Colin Powell, and descendants of Horn & Hardart founders and executives, Hurwitz cogently explains why the automaton 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 – gave an air of occasion to an otherwise dull lunch hour. One of the most illuminating voices in ‘The Automat’ comes from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who reveals that a childhood visit to Horn & Hardart inspired the idea for his coffeehouse chain, in which he sought to invest similar values ​​of “theater, excitement, surprise and pleasure.

As charming as these interviews are, Hurwitz’s most impassioned sting and witness is Mel Brooks, who becomes rhapsodic in his Proustian musings about his favorite treats at Horn & Hardart, which became famous for its macaroni and cheese, spinach with cream, its baked beans and that New Orleans-style infused coffee. “The Automat” breaks no formal ground; its visual language embraces the conventional format of archival documents and interviews with talking heads. But it tells an important and unexpected story. Seen through the prism of contemporary tribalism, the demotic genius of the automaton – where heiresses and celebrities shared marble-topped tables with secretaries and construction workers – is a reminder of what corporate America is capable of in its most creative and idealistic. It’s worth a lot of nickels.

Not rated. In neighborhood theatres. Contains nothing objectionable. 79 mins.


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