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After Work: The Automat Is Back

…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…

Dona Gibbs hails the return of a New York institution – the automat. And what a tasty help-yourself menu!

The automat has returned!

Yes, the automatic. No, not the Horn & Hardardt 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” that 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 Yorker 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 were 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 one 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 twenties. Long blond 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. 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.”

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