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Bettmann/CORBIS

Automatic for the People: Remembering the Automat Restaurants

Bettmann/CORBIS
Bettmann/CORBIS

Long before fast food chains invaded the city, New York’s favorite place to grab a quick lunch and a cup of Joe was the Automat.

If you were a working stiff in New York any time during the mid-twentieth century, there’s a good chance that your daily lunch breaks were spent at one of the fifty Automat restaurants around the city. At the height of their popularity, they served around 350,000 customers a day. With their vast walls of chrome-and-glass food-dispensing machines offering everything from Salisbury steak to cream spinach to apple pie, the Automats were famous for simple, hearty fare at a low price.

America’s prototype restaurant chain was the brainchild of Joe Horn and Frank Hardart. At the turn of the 20th century, the business partners envisioned a dining experience that would embrace the industrial revolution’s idea of conveyor-belt efficiency and uniformity. It would feature self-service vending machines instead of waitresses, and have a gleaming modern décor that was more factory than dining room. Inspired by a German eatery called the Quisiana Automat, Horn & Hardart launched their first Automat in Philadelphia in 1902. Ten years later, they opened another in Times Square, and it was there that the Automat really took off.

New Yorkers loved the speed and low prices. And boy, were they low. Until 1952, almost all the food cost a nickel. A hamburger or bacon and eggs were two nickels. Originally, the Automat’s machines accepted only nickels. Cashiers – or “nickel throwers” – changed paper money and larger coins from a booth in the center of the restaurant. Diners dropped the nickels in the slots, turned a knob, then lifted a hinged window and removed the entrée, sandwich, or dessert of their choice. Aside from the novelty, one of the practical advantages of the Automat was that you could see the food before buying it.

Though the restaurants appeared to be automated, behind the scenes there was a busy staff constantly refilling the compartments. And the food, of course, was prepared by human hands, all of it from a central commissary in midtown. Other Automat staples included frankfurters, beef stew, macaroni and cheese, baked beans in a pot, mashed turnips, donuts and huckleberry pie.

Hot Coffee

For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee. Horn & Hardart popularized fresh drip-brewed coffee in New York. Prior to the Automat, coffee was often harsh and bitter, boiled and clarified with eggshells. The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads. In their heyday, Automats sold over 90 million cups of their fresh-brewed coffee each year. And they were committed to keeping it fresh. When an Automat employee brewed coffee, they filled out a time card. After twenty minutes, they discarded whatever coffee was left and made a fresh pot. If there was any doubt about Horn & Hardart’s commitment to java, the Automat even adopted Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” as their unofficial theme song.

In fact, Berlin was a regular at the Automat. So were Wall Street bankers, cops, sewer workers, office clerks, secretaries, actors, musicians and pretty much everyone else in the city. Uptown, downtown, rich, poor – everyone loved the Automat. That was another wonderful thing about it - it was a truly democratic dining experience.

By the 1960s, suburban sprawl, changing tastes and newer fast-food restaurant chains were taking their toll on the Automat’s business. By the 1970s, Horn & Hardart were replacing Automats with Burger King franchises. The last of the Horn & Hardart establishments closed in April 1991. In 2006, a restaurant called Bamn tried to revive the Automat concept in New York’s East Village, but its success was short-lived. A section of Horn & Hardart’s flagship 1902 Automat in Philadelphia is preserved in the Smithsonian National Museum.

And finally, a few words of love from famous Automat diners:

“I have always thought that the Automat in New York has the best scrambled eggs in the world.” —Gregory Peck
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“The Automat was the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised.” —Neil Simon
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“I had the same lunch there every day: three vegetables, a roll, and cocoa. All for twenty-five cents.” —Jerome Robbins
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“I lived at the Automat. They had the greatest chocolate milk. When I moved to Philadelphia, I apportioned less than two dollars a day to eat on, and the Automat was the only place I could do it.” —Dick Clark
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“I went to the Automat all the time. I grew up going to the Automat. The food was delicious. And it was wonderful.” —Woody Allen

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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iStock

Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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