My family was not a restaurant family. My dad was a man who preferred his wife’s cooking to any other food on earth.

I’ve heard it said that a great theater actor is someone who can make his lines seem fresh every performance even if he has said them 1,000 times before. Each evening when my dad came home from work in Center City Philadelphia to find a home-cooked meal on the table, he was as pleased as he must have been the first night mom ever cooked dinner for him. “This is terrific,” he’d say, beaming at her, even if it was nothing fancy. Especially if it was nothing fancy.

Mom had only one rival for dad’s affection in the kitchen, and that was Horn & Hardart.

The chain, which New Yorkers called the Automat, was founded in Philadelphia at the turn of the last century, the city where my dad was born in 1926, and where he lived for almost 90 years.

H&H held a deeply established place in our family lore and in my father’s heart.

As a boy, my dad ate there every Thursday evening with his sister and his parents, the maid’s night off. My grandfather often lunched at the H&H near his workplace, and as a young attorney, my dad frequented one near his office. “It was regular meals. It was a terrific place,” he said last week, at 92, his recollection of H&H, though not his attachment to it, a little wobbly. “This was as American as you could ever get.”


Early on, dad took mom on a few dates there. Mom, it must be said, doesn’t remember these with any great degree of romance. She grew up in Montreal, “and we had much more wonderful restaurants than Horn & Hardart,” she told me recently.

My dad celebrated his 60th birthday at one of the few remaining H&Hs at the time. The chain was foundering badly by then, which only made him love it more; dad, a romantic, always thinks he can rescue the down-and-outer, be it a restaurant or a daughter’s failing marriage. For another birthday, my sisters and I re-created an H&H menu for him – the baked beans, the macaroni and cheese, the meatloaf – and dressed up as waitresses, addressing dad as “hon” and asking him if he’d like another slice of pie.

My grandfather, a professor of finance, died when I was a toddler – I’ve no memory of him – but I have heard one story so often, sometimes I almost think I was there.

“We were sitting in the Horn & Hardart at Broad and Olney,” my father relates. “They’d raised the price of a cup of coffee from a nickel to a dime. And (your grandfather) said to the waitress, ‘That is a 100 percent increase.’ Then he turned to me and said, ‘I want you to remember that, Bobby. Before I die, and certainly before you die, that coffee will cost at least 50 cents.’ ”

A lesson on the dangers of inflation inevitably followed the telling of this tale.

But until I watched an unfinished cut of the funny, moving documentary “The Automat,” which is coming to Portland on March 10 as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival, I had no idea that price hike was a major news event. According to some, it spelled the beginning of the end for H&H, once the biggest chain of restaurants in the country and a frequent backdrop to Hollywood movies, popular songs and Broadway shows (most famously Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s “Face the Music”: “Just around the corner/There’s a rainbow in the sky/So let’s have another cup o’ coffee. And let’s have another piece o’ pie!”).


“The Automat” features a hilarious Mel Brooks, as well as Carl Reiner, Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and many other famous and not-so-famous people reminiscing about the cafeteria. The story of its rise and fall mirrors American history – the rise of the office worker, the rise of women, our love of efficiency and novelty (you put a nickel in a slot and removed your food from a vending machine), the impact of the Depression (the prices at H&H were famously reasonable for famously good food), the labor movement and the growth of fast food (god help us).

Obviously, in making her film, director Lisa Hurwitz – who will attend the Portland screening – couldn’t have intended to make me understand my father better. But my dad’s patriotism, his preference for the ordinary, his thrift, his hero worship of successful entrepreneurs, his nostalgia for the world of his youth, his admiration for rags-to-riches success (co-founder Frank Hardart emigrated from Germany as a boy and grew up poor) hovered in almost every frame.

And when a former H&H executive interviewed in “The Automat” describes the other half of the chain, co-founder Joseph Horn, he could have been speaking about my dad: “Mr. Horn was very much a Philadelphian. Whenever he returned by train at the end of a long day in New York, he would look at everybody and say, ‘Thank god for Philadelphia.’ ”

For three years now, dad has been banished to an independent living facility in New York City. Mom likes it, dad not so much. Maybe I should remind him that New York was the only other city in the world that the Automat called home.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: