Lunch Hour NYC is a new exhibition of the New York Public Library. It traces the city’s 150-year history of eating the midday meal. As soon as you walk through the exhibit doors, you are transported back to a time when the oyster was a popular and plentiful food.
It’s interesting to see that, at the turn of the last century, New York was known for its quick lunches catering to the working crowd.
The big draw of the exhibit is the replica of Horn and Hardart’s Automat. Debuting in 1912, it was filled with self-serve dishes like creamed spinach, baked beans, macaroni and cheese and beef and noodles with burgundy sauce. My mom fondly recalls getting date-nut bread with cream cheese from the Automat. Today, you can turn the knob and open the small glass doors to find a sample recipe card for an original Horn and Hardart dish.
It’s fun to look at old menus and see what kinds of dishes were popular at different times and how much things used to cost. There were menus where nothing cost more than a dollar. This Cafeteria Lunch one features the New York staple, corned beef. Apparently, even back in 1900, restaurants weren’t responsible for lost items such as umbrellas.
The library has a collection of about 45,000 menus dating as far back as the 1840s and is cataloguing them by dish. It’s a daunting task, so they are asking for the public’s help in transcribing the menus.