By Mitch Broder
Your nickels won’t go into the slots, which is best, since they’d buy paper food.
Still, you can’t deny that the Automat is back.
Not the entire Automat, but a twelve-door section of one, complete with windows, slots, knobs, and prices from one to four nickels. It opens, so to speak, at 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning, along with the new First Avenue branch of the 2nd Ave Deli.
It used to be in the Second Avenue branch of the 2nd Ave Deli. There, too, it was just inside the entrance. When that store closed in 2006, the relic was put into storage. I’ve been waiting for it to come out ever since. The owners humored me with an exclusive preview.
It is magnificent. It evokes a beloved tradition of New York City, even if the tradition did get its start in Philadelphia. In keeping with its home, it offers only Jewish deli food, and only pictures of that. But you still want to deposit your coins and turn a knob.
Of course, the opening on Tuesday is actually more for the deli. And that’s fitting, since, unlike the Automat, it has survived. The new deli is also magnificent. (It wasn’t finished, so I couldn’t take pictures.) And it marks a milestone for one of the best-known families in Jewish deli history.
The 2nd Ave Deli opened at the corner of Tenth Street in 1954, which was late in the day for Jewish delis. But Abe Lebewohl didn’t care how late it was. Having worked his way up through the deli world, he turned the tiny former luncheonette into a 130-seat institution officially approved by Jackie Mason.
On March 4, 1996, on his way to make a bank deposit, Abe Lebewohl was shot and killed. His family resolved to keep his life’s work alive. His brother Jack ran the deli till a rent dispute closed it ten years later. But Jack’s sons Josh and Jeremy reopened the next year on 33rd Street — and are now about to open a second branch, for the first time.
As for the real Automat, it predated the 2nd Ave Deli by half a century. Joe Horn and Frank Hardart launched it in Philadelphia in 1902. The first New York City Automat opened in 1912. By mid-century, dozens were dispensing the likes of Salisbury steak, baked beans, and pumpkin pie.
|An Automat photograph made in 1942 by J. Baylor Roberts. From the National Geographic Image Collection.|
At its height, it appeared in movies, songs, books, and magazines. Its strange marriage of automation and humanity was unique. In a book called “The Automat,” the authors quote a company executive: “New York in those days had only two types: Park Avenue and the workers. But they all came to the Automat.”
New York again has only those two types. But it has no more Automats. They all succumbed to the usual scourges of cities — notably, the suburbs. Plus food has just gotten too serious, and besides, it’s gone up too much. To buy a 2nd Ave Deli pastrami sandwich at the Automat, you’d need 319 nickels.
But it’s a good pastrami sandwich. And the new deli is a great tribute. “We want to make sure that it lives up to what my uncle would have wanted,” Josh Lebewohl told me.
He also assured me that he, too, cherishes the 2nd Ave Deli’s Automat: “We’re serving classic Jewish food, and the Automat is part of classic New York.”
|The new deli also has this nice clock.|