Courtesy of the John W. Romas Collection West 72nd Street location of Horn & Hardart
Before our burgeoning fast-casual dining climate took hold, and before fast-food fever swept over the nation during the 1950s (continuing its dominance through today), Americans of all classes sat together eating meat loaf blue-plate specials and strawberry shortcakes in the original arbiter of convenient dining: the automat. If they lived in New York City or Philadelphia, chances are they ate at Horn & Hardart, which opened its first outpost in 1902, and closed its last — on 42nd Street — in 1991. (Way back in 2006, an outfit called BAMN! attempted to bring back the automat on St. Marks Place, but the lackluster revival succumbed in 2009.) Now there's a documentary being made about Horn & Hardart, its meteoric rise (at one point, it was the world's largest restaurant chain, feeding over half a million people per day) and meandering but noble conclusion.