Horn and Hardart's Automat
I love the way people who grew up in old New York light up when you ask them about the old automats. I spoke with a woman who lived there in the '50s and she loved going to the Horn and Hardart's Automat on her noontime lunchbreak. The appeal was that it was so fast and easy. She also loved going there as a child, with her mother on their way to the department stores.
Over and over, I hear people saying that they had a "tradition" of going to the automat as kids, and there was something so special about putting a few coins in the slots and getting to choose your own food. High-quality comfort food classics like macaroni and cheese and chicken pot pie would stay miraculously hot and beautifully presented in glass windows with chrome knobs. No paper plates or disposable cups at the automat, only real dishware. People seem to get especially nostalgic about the food, remembering it as toothsome and tasty.
There was always someone there to make change for you, nickels to clink down into the slots, and once you made your selection, one of the behind-the-scenes folks would refill the space with a fresh slice of pie or sandwich. They had good coffee, clean tables, and there were no worries about tipping. Some say that automats were a sort of equalizer, people of all situations could dine together comfortably and affordably. Sometimes you would set your tray down at a table and make a new friend.
The last Horn and Hardart's closed in 1991, but a new automat restaurant called Bamn! revisits the concept at 37 St Marks Place in NYC (between 2nd and 3rd Ave in the East Village).