At the Automat

PUT your nickels in the slot, twist the ivory-colored knob, and pull out a slice of freshly made apple pie. No wait, no fuss. This one wall -- with its glowing Art Deco letters proclaiming ``Sandwiches,'' ``Beverages,'' ``Desserts,'' and ``Hot Dishes'' -- is all that remains of a gustatory revolution. In the '30s and '40s, New York had dozens of glass- and chrome-trimmed Automats. Now there's only one. But that one still draws lunchtime crowds reminiscent of the famous actresses and depression-era drifters who once twisted these knobs and sat at these tables. Even today, a few New York personalities, like newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, frequent the lone Automat at 42nd Street and Third Avenue.

Why do folks keep coming back for the sturdy but unexciting fare at Horn & Hardart's? Dorothy Mannix laughs at the question. It's a little like asking why she brushes her teeth or goes to work.

``We've been coming for as long as they've been here,'' Ms. Mannix says, waving a hand toward her friend across the table. ``We know the help -- they're family.'' After all, she and her companion live right ``upstairs,'' in the high-rise apartments built atop the world's last Automat restaurant.

Faithful customers like Dorothy Mannix are as important to the nostalgic atmosphere here as the mirrored pillars with their strings of tiny winking lights, the white-clad employees, and the ranks and files of little rectangular windows.

``I tell you, I enjoy it because in this kind of business you meet all kinds of people,'' says Eddie Rodino, manager of this sole survivor in Horn & Hardart's long line of automated restaurants. (The company's original Philadelphia Automat is reconstructed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.)

From the day two enterprising restaurateurs from Philadelphia, Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, opened the city's first Automat in 1912, right through the 1950s, the coin-operated eateries drew New Yorkers of every rank and station.

As the '60s came in, styles changed, tastes changed, and the Automat lost its allure. A second wave of fast-food outlets captured a new generation of split-second eaters with assembly-line hamburgers and fries. Horn & Hardart rode that wave, converting their 38 other New York locations into Burger King and Arby's franchises.

Only the Third Avenue location keeps up the company's tradition. And it's a tradition well worth preserving, according to Mr. Rodino, a short, energetic man with slicked-down black hair, who has spent most of a lifetime with Horn & Hardart.

He recalls stepping off the boat onto a New York pier in 1946, a timid 14-year-old newly arrived from Spain with his mother. Where could a young immigrant find part-time work while he attended school to pick up some English? At the Automat, doing ``you name it,'' Rodino says with a smile. Seven years later, he was made a manager, and at one time or another over the last four decades he has supervised ``almost every Automat in New York City -- Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island.''

By anticipating the public's taste for food served quickly and inexpensively, the Automat's creators kept pace with the times. But they didn't foresee the skyrocketing prices of recent decades.

The Automat machines were designed to take amounts ranging from one nickel (for many years the price of a cup of coffee) to three quarters. The company eventually had to opt for tokens, costing 40 cents for coffee and 75 cents for sandwiches.

These days, most patrons ``look at the machines, then go to the cafeteria line'' adjacent to the Automat wall, says Rodino. The exception is summertime, when tourists flock in for the experience of plucking their meals from the little windows. But even in mid-April, when chilly breezes still course through Manhattan's concrete ravines, a few die-hards choose the coin-op tradition.

One oldtimer motions Rodino over to the ornate ``Beverage'' spigots. ``I can't get anything out of it,'' he complains. The manager taps on a panel next to the drink dispenser. It opens up and a steaming cupful is promptly handed through.

The Automat machines are ``just like a car,'' he explains, ``you have to give them tune-ups.'' Various little chutes and cranks and gears need a cleaning ``every so often.''

Ever any complaints about the food behind the windows getting stale?

Mr. Rodino shakes his head vigorously and asserts that there's no stockpiling of sandwiches or other items here. ``We have a person back there who makes it as it's required. All the food sold in the restaurant is prepared here,'' he adds, hinting at the difference between ``fast food'' past and present.

Another difference, as he points out, is employees' length of service. Some of his staff has been here for years. ``They're very responsible, and they rarely call in sick,'' says the manager. You can schedule work a week ahead with no problem, he says, while a Burger King or comparable outlet, with rapid turnover of young workers, is lucky to schedule a day ahead.

Perhaps that's part of the feeling mentioned by longtime customer Mannix.

You look around this place -- with its multicolored cutouts of stars, light bulbs, and miniature Empire State Buildings dangling from the ceiling, the mixed attire of scruffy jeans, knit caps, and gray business suits, the patron calling out ``What say, Tom?'' to a middle-aged ``busboy'' -- and you get the feeling this is a remnant of small-town America right in the middle of trendy Manhattan.

Then you remember Dorothy Mannix saying, ``The food is good, try some!'' and head for that little window with the apple pie inside.

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