Automat for the People
A look at American dining at the turn of the century.
I have always been inordinately fond of things with moving parts—pinball machines, record players, those clocks and watches in which you can see the gears and sprockets turning as the seconds tick away. As such, one of my great regrets in life is that I was born in Manhattan after the heyday of the Automat. That combination of food and simple machinery is like a holy grail for me. Looking for a little fix last summer, I lingered, far longer than it would have taken to eat an entire meal at an actual Automat, at the Horn & Hardart coin-activated metal compartments on display at the New York Public Library's "Lunch Hour" exhibit. All those shining slots and knobs and hinges had a sad, hypnotic effect on me—paradise lost—and when I wandered out into the haze of midtown, I couldn't think where I might eat that wouldn't pale in comparison to what once had been.
My feeling of urban lunchtime hopelessness, I have now discovered, was neither unique nor new. In the sumptuous Repast: Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900–1910 (Norton, $26), Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer refer to this midday malaise as "the problem of lunch." Their book makes clear, along with many other things about the way we ate then, that soul-crushingly bad noontime meal options have been a long-standing feature of the American workday. That they manage to make discussions of awful meals both charming and interesting is in no small part due to Repast's kaleidoscopic mix of contemporary news stories, research, and gorgeous reproductions of menus from the era, festooned with illustrations of