I just googled Horn and Hardart's, and according to Wikipedia (which one should never be used as an authoritative source, still), Horn and Hardart's was a Philadelphia institution, just like me.
Now, I never knew that, in all the years that I went there as a kid. I just knew that, for my family, going to Horn and Hardart's was an anticipated and extravagant dinner out.
People who grew up in NY or Philadelphia will understand that that statement means I came from a strata of where eating out, away from the homestyle staples of meatloaf and chicken fricasee, were a rare experience and signified a birthday or anniversary celebration. We never went out just because my mother was tired of cooking. Heaven forbid! Even more, we never went out because the family craved variety or a well-cooked meal (cooking never being my mother's forte). We went to Horn and Hardart's to celebrate an event and the fact that my father made just about enough money to treat his family of five to a modest meal at a neighborhood institution.
The Horn and Hardart's sit down restaurants were not fancy. In fact, the staple of the sit down menu was the restaurant's eponimous salisbury steak, a glorified hamburger patty with glutenous gravy poured over it and the oh-so-creamy mashed potatoes and green beans that accompanied it. That was not my favorite meal. My favorite Horn and Hardart's meal was roast lamb, something far too elegant for my mother's cooking repertoire. It was served with a pleated paper cup of mint jelly which I hated, but thought was the height of elegance.
It is not, however, the sit down restaurants that made H and H famous. It was the automat. I guess that's why I started thinking about the restaurant, in the first place. The automat, in Philadelphia and New York, was a staple of the Great Depression. It was possible to get a bologna sandwich on white bread with butter (gag!) for one or two nickels. Orangey yellow mac and cheese was a bit more, but boy did it stick to your ribs (and anything else it came in contact with). The lore of Horn and Hardart's automat always includes the down-and-outer swiping ketchup (or catsup) from the condiment table, mixing it with hot water from the coffee spigot, adding salt and pepper and – voila! – poor people's tomato soup. I tried that, years later, and it wasn't half bad,more so, I guess, if you had nothing else as was the case in the 30s.
The automat windows had nickel slots and there were matrons who cycled around providing change for the slots. Nickel-plated knobs allowed you to lift the window and take out your food. Then the window would remain empty until it turned around, magically, to be refilled with identical looking food. It made eating fun, even if the food was pretty awful and, for a kid, there was nothing more enriching and entertaining than controlling the process of getting food from those little windows by the insertion of a buffalo head nickel.
We have long passed the time when you could buy much of anything for a nickel, but if the economy continues to decline, who knows? It could happen again. And talk about cheap entertainment! Where else can you get a magically appearing white bread sandwich for just a few nickels.