Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new San Francisco restaurant seems novel—but it’s actually the latest iteration of a decades-old fascination with vending halls.
At Eatsa, a new restaurant in San Francisco’s Embarcadero neighborhood, diners are deliberately estranged from their food. It’s a far cry from locavore mania, based on visceral connection to the land, in which diners want to taste the dirt and learn about the hands that tended the crops. At this fully automated restaurant, there’s very little transparency. Diners order via in-store iPads, and their food pops up behind a window. SFGate explains:
Not a human in sight, though there is a team of about five or six back-of-house kitchen staff (or as I like to imagine, magical elves) who are hidden from view and prepare the food.
This sleek, streamlined concept—and the instant gratification it offers—seem so attuned to the whims of the on-demand economy. But actually the concept harkens back to a midcentury idea.
By the 1940s, Americans were thoroughly seduced by the allure of machines—and especially of eating from them. Removing traces of the human hand felt magical. It was also practical. Harried office workers on short lunch breaks could stroll to one of many Automats (most notably Horn & Hardart), drop a nickel into a slot, and open a compartment to reveal hearty, homestyle fare: a pre-made sandwich, cup of soup, or slice of pie.
"That's dreadful," said Henry J. Stern, the former Parks Commissioner who now heads the Citizens Union. "It was equivalent to the Woolworth Building and Macy's windows as the most public place in town. It was everything."
"Automats were right up there with the Statue of Liberty and Madison Square Garden," said Kent L. Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society.
Automats were often large halls full of booths encircling the self-serve area. Many were adorned with Art Deco elements, all chrome, glass, and lacquer. In addition to giving working stiffs a place to buy a quick bite, the pseudo-mechanized process assuaged fears about food contamination, Smithsonian reports. (A segment of a Philadelphia lunch spot is enshrined in the National Museum of American History.)
Automats faded from popularity when many workplaces built cafeterias—and today, a coterie of grab-and-go salad spots suggest that people aren’t sitting down to enjoy a midday interpretation of a home-cooked meal. Eatsa is a nod to an era that pre-dates our sad desk lunches. Who wouldn’t prefer a deliciously futuristic pie?