Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Bamn is the new Horn & Hardart. How many of you remember going to the original ? The famous Horn & Hardart Automat.

Here you see the original

Here is today's version

The first Horn & Hardart opened in Philadelphia in 1902. They became amazingly popular. You could go with 25 cents and have a meal. It became an institution.

It became famous in song, such as Irving Berlin's "Let's have another cup of coffee, let's have another piece of pie".
It even became part of comedy. Fred Allen often said that the Horn & Hardart manager would make Jack Benny bounce his nickels on the windowsill to let him in.

It was so amazingly popular. It has been said that at the peak of the automat, over 800,000 people were eating there every day!
I remember the automat. It was called if I recall H&H at that time. Which stood for Horn and Hardart. I so enjoyed buying stuff there. This was in New York in the 1960's. Now there is a new automat. Not like the old one in many regards, but still quite interesting.

I found a few reviews on Bamn. I thought it would be cool to share it. It is by people it seems who remembers the old automats..

Not Quite Authentic, But Wonderful Nevertheless

It's called Bamn! It's not quite a Horn & Hardart Automat, even though it tries. The color scheme is a glowing amalgamation of magenta and hot pink. The tiny space is standing room only, with no place to sit and loiter away an afternoon over a cup of coffee—Starbucks has, to its credit, taken on that role in our society. It's in the East Village, only recently gentrified to a point that a gent with a pocket full of jingling coins could walk down the block without being hit on the head and robbed of them. Still, it is a little like an automat of old, and that's a thrill to those of us who used to patronize them.

In case you're wondering what the word automat means, it's in the dictionary. Here's how mine defines it: "A restaurant in which the customers obtain food from closed compartments by depositing coins therein."

Once automats were all over New York. They were huge and shiny, and any kid who got to go to one had about as much fun as kids could have where food was concerned. We had a different lifestyle back then—meals were under the supervision of mothers, not television commercials. Most of what I remember about my visits to Horn & Hardart Automats was getting a bunch of nickels from the cashiers—they were nicknamed "nickel throwers"—and heading straight for the little windows that dispensed baked beans. I sure loved those beans, probably because cowboys ate them around campfires.

Bamn! takes quarters. It offers only a few dishes, and other than the hot dogs and possibly the grilled cheese, I'm pretty sure none were available in the old days. Not the chicken wings, the teriyaki burgers, the roast pork buns, the Japanese donuts, the pizza dumplings, the peanut butter & jelly croquettes, or the mozzarella sticks. Surely not the spam sushi. Everything goes for $1.00-$2.00. I tried everything and liked the pork bun best.

As the world has moved toward self-service—grocery stores, gas stations—the food world has gone in the opposite direction. Everything is handed to you. Taking whatever food I wanted was the most satisfying aspect of an automat meal. If I had tried that at home, I would have gotten my hand slapped.


Yes, the automat. No, not the Horn & Hardart Automat that appeared on the dining scene at the turn of the last century and finally closed the last of its 180 restaurants in New York in 1991. This is a brand-new concept. A hip new automat that dispenses comfort food "25 hours a day" in New York City's East Village.

This I had to see. And taste.

Now an automat, for those you who were not in New York from 1912 to 1991, is a wonderful system where all kinds of food -- hot food, cold food, desserts, and main dishes -- were displayed behind little glass doors. You made your selection and dropped in the appropriate amount of coins. You could then take out you choice, grab a seat and dig in.

The automat was indeed iconic. In "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," Marilyn Monroe sang "Diamonds are a Girl's Friend," which includes these lyrics: "A kiss may be grand but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat, or help you at the automat."

Edward Hopper's 1927 painting "Automat" depicts a lonely young woman lingering at the automat. Diane Airbus's photograph "Two Ladies at the Automat" is a 1966 time capsule of two New York women of a certain age dressed to the nines -- if not the tens -- for lunch at the automat.

There are television and movie references a-plenty. The automat was part of New York life. Then came the exodus to the suburbs. Fast food. Food on the go. The old automat locations became more valuable as real estate. The girl fresh from the Midwest, the young eager guy right from college -- no, the automat was no longer for them. Just a few graying biddies from bookkeeping munching away on their burgundy beef and noodles. Some of the old automat locations became Burger Kings. New York never stands still.

The automat is back: the new automat that is. Re-imaged by the hip for the hip. Two young entrepreneurs, David Leong and Robert Kwak, plus executive chef Kevin Reilly and a designer who goes by the name Nobu, have brought Bamn, the automat, right into the heart of hipdom: New York's East Village.

I had the perfect excuse to give Bamn a try. My husband's goddaughter was in town. While Marty and I don't fit Bamn's demographics, she does: Early 20s, long blonde hair, perfectly tailored pants, little camisole top.

On the long cab ride downtown, Marty asked, "You did make reservations, didn't you."

"Nope," I replied and looked out the window as we sped by the East River. He fidgeted, thinking no doubt, "New restaurant, long wait for a table."

I hadn't informed him that there are no tables.

We arrived at the hot pink storefront. There are instructions about food selection and inserting coins so no one ever needs to look uncool, which is so important at a cool place. Change can be had at machines. While nickels and dimes were the coins of the realm at the old automat, here silver dollars and quarters are the open sesame for the little doors.

And what's behind those doors? Tiny delicious hamburgers doused in teriyaki sauce, fabulous roast pork buns, melted cheese sandwiches oozing goodness, hot dogs, Japanese doughnuts, mac-and-cheese croquets (a Dutch addition), pizza dumplings. At the counter, customers were ordering up Belgian fries and mini-regular hamburgers four and six at a time.

We were early, and with the sight of those pork buns, we didn't wait. Our goddaughter was on time, but two pork buns and a hamburger behind us. There are no seats. We stood on the sidewalk and inhaled the food. Yum.

And we watched the crowds: tattoos, piercings, boots and cordovans, ties and t-shirts, long hair, short hair, no hair.

Everyone who passed did a double take.

"Oh wow, an automat."

So I think it quite nice that the automat has returned. I will have to give it a try soon.