The Automat

2021, USA, 79 min.

The Automat, a Philadelphia and New York dining fixture for decades, was all ornate chrome, marble and enchantment. Patrons fed nickels into a window to grab food—from creamed spinach to coconut cream pies—all, freshly made. Anybody could dine out in style. Director Lisa Hurwitz’s wistful, insightful documentary covers the chain eatery’s rise in the early part of the 20th century (more women working in cities) and its precipitous fall in the 1950s and 60s (the exodus to the suburbs; the presence of frozen foods). The film’s charm, though, comes from former patrons’ childhood memories. Mel Brooks marvels over the Automat’s perfect coffee; Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalls dropping in after her piano lesson. Hurwitz, who was in her early 20s when she started filming in 2013, shows how past cultural institutions in America have emotional resonance and an impact on today’s standbys. To wit, Howard Shultz credits his childhood visit to an Automat with inspiring his own chain—Starbucks.