On the front window of the Bamn automat in the East Village, there is a guide on how to purchase food there. Though most restaurants don't require instructions, it's probably a good idea to memorize these before the restaurant opens in a few weeks, since many New Yorkers are too young to have dined at an automat. So, here's how it works: insert coins, retrieve food from behind a glass panel, and dig in.
Though St. Mark's Place revelers may not remember it, the automat has a long history in New York. Joe Horn and Frank Hardart's coin-operated automats were the fast food of the early 20th century, offering hearty dishes like beef and noodles in burgundy sauce, chicken pot-pie, and mashed turnips. After buying dishes of hot food from individualized compartments, customers ate together in large cafeterias. At the automat's peak in the 1950s, there were 180 restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, at one point feeding more than 800,000 people a day.
The automat eventually succumbed to fast food and inflation. The restaurants came to have bigger profit potential as real estate, and by the late 1970s, most automats in New York were converted to Burger Kings. The last Horn and Hardart automat, at 42nd Street and Third Avenue, closed in 1991.
Conceived by Robert Kwak, David Leong, and a designer known as "Nobu," Bamn will serve finger foods, like grilled cheese and pizza dumplings, with an occasional Asian kick. It's the first restaurant venture by Mr. Kwak, an entrepreneur who launched the first Asian basketball league in Manhattan. Items will cost between $1.50 and $2.50, and diners should either bring quarters or silver dollars or use the store's change machine to get them.
Bamn touts itself as the return of the automat, but it's really a second coming from Europe. Hardart, who was running a cafeteria with Horn in Philadelphia, heard about the machines from a salesman, who had seen them in Germany in 1900. More than a century later, Mr. Leong discovered the modern automat on a trip to Amsterdam.
Instead of turkey and creamed spinach, however, Dutch automats such as Febo and Smullers serve beef croquets, french fries, and hamburgers. Bamn's menu will mimic that style, and the restaurant will also include a non-automated area for ordering fries. There will be only limited counter space to eat in the restaurant.
Alec Shuldiner, an American systems analyst who lives in Amsterdam, wrote his 2001 doctoral dissertation on the automat. He said that after World War II, Dutch restaurant owners began deep-freezing and deep-frying food, using coin-operated machines to sell individual items. But many owners ignored fried food's limited shelf life, and spoiled food was not uncommon. By the mid-1970s, the Dutch automatiek, like the American automat, was fading.
Febo, which was originally a pastry shop with reputable croquets, began using an automatiek to sell them in 1960. By advertising itself as a trustworthy snacking option, Febo had expanded to 13 automats by 1979. "It was a branding thing in the sense that they were saying ‘we are all about automatieks and you can trust automatieks because of the way we handle it,'" Mr. Shuldiner said recently. Later, Febo distinguished itself with bright yellow storefronts and expensive building materials such as granite and high-grade plastics.
The owners of Bamn, who consulted Mr. Shuldiner while researching for the restaurant, emulate Febo's branding strategy with a hot pink façade and bubbly typeface. "They are doing what restaurateurs often do now," Mr. Shuldiner said, "which is to open an independent restaurant, but to brand it in a way that makes it appear as if it is part of a well-developed restaurant chain."
Fifteen years after the last automat closed in New York, Mr. Shuldiner found that the restaurants stirred nostalgia in many of his interview subjects. "It made my research so easy," Mr. Shuldiner said. "Everybody was eager to talk about it. Everybody."
Hardart's great granddaughter, Marianne, and Lorraine Diehl, a journalist and New York City native, co-wrote a history and recipe book about Horn and Hardart's automats in 2002. Ms. Hardart and Ms. Diehl spoke and presented about half a dozen slide shows to packed crowds at the Museum of the City of New York. Ms. Hardart, too, found that New Yorkers loved talking about automats. "Their memories of so many levels of their lives are intertwined with it," she said recently.
"What actually surprised us is, they didn't simply come to listen," Ms. Diehl said. "They came and brought all of their memorabilia." The museum told Ms. Hardart that it was the first time that an exhibit provoked strangers to swap stories with each other.
The owner of a second-hand bar business on Houston Street, Steve Stollman, felt a similar outpouring when he displayed a handful of automat units in his storefront window about 10 years ago. Mr. Stollman owns enough parts to assemble 100 units, and said he's thinking of writing his own book on the subject, focusing on how the automat brought people together. "The very character of it, that something so good could be for everybody, it s just a different view of the world than we have now," Mr. Stollman said.