Updated: February 18, 2022 5:43 PM EST | Originally published: February 18, 2022 11:05 AM EST

The heart of a city may beat loudest in its restaurants, the places where people gather to eat and drink, to gossip and celebrate. In New York City and Philadelphia, for some 80 years, the Horn & Hardart Automats were perhaps the best measure of the pulse of city life, according to first-time filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz’s delightful documentary The Automat.

Even if you’ve never had the pleasure of eating in an Automat, Hurwitz brings the experience to life. She also traces the rise and fall of this mini-chain as an indication of the changing habits of diners, and ordinary citizens, across nearly the span of the 20th century. And, best of all, she gets Mel Brooks on camera, waxing poetic about his Brooklyn childhood and, specifically, his love for the Automat. What more do you want from a documentary?

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The first Horn & Hardart restaurant opened in Philadelphia in 1888. Founders Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart got started with a small lunchroom featuring a single counter and 15 stools; one of their goals was to introduce New Orleans-style coffee to Philadelphia. The lunchroom, not to mention the coffee, was a hit, but the idea of “automating” came a little later, in 1902. Individual items—made with care, eventually in centralized commissaries that could turn out large quantities of freshly prepared food—sat behind little windows, and were purchased by dropping nickels in a slot. That idea would become the hallmark of a chain that existed only in two cities but whose cultural reach was vast. During the Depression, a cup of coffee and a slice of pie cost just a few nickels at Horn & Hardart, providing sustenance and pleasure for city dwellers stretched thin. The coffee would flow from an elegant spout shaped like a dolphin—co-founder Horn got his inspiration from an Italian fountain, thus bringing a touch of European elegance to diners’ daily cup o’ joe.

Everyone—Black or white, rich or poor—was welcome at Horn & Hardart, as Hurwitz’s subjects attest. They include Colin Powell, who reflects on being a kid from the Bronx who loved making field trips to the Automats in Manhattan, where the food was affordable but served in an elegant setting, with high ceilings, shiny floors, and polished marble tables. Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about frequenting one particular Manhattan Automat after her piano lessons; she could always find a quiet table where she could sit and read, or do her homework. And then there’s Brooks, who so adored the Automat that he wrote a song about it, which he performs over the film’s closing credits. Because the last Horn & Hardart closed in 1991, that 5-cent cup of coffee now exists only in his dreams. But at least he can share its glory with us.

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