There has been recent interest shown in the automated diner that opened in Boise in 1925. So we looked into it and discovered that the original Mecanafe, the mechanical café, was located on 9th and Main Streets just east of the Idanha. Later they moved to a second location on 8th Street where Cascade Terrace is today. The Mecanafe featured a conveyor belt system that carried food from the basement kitchen to customers seated at one of the upper two levels. For 25 cents, paid upon entrance, a patron could eat as much food as they cared to. Customers would pick up whatever foods caught their fancy, and deposit their empty trays in the compartments below.
By the 1920s there had been a growing presence of public dining in the American city. The U.S Census shows that in fifty years, from 1880-1930, there was a sharp rise in the number of restaurants, cafes, lunchrooms and the like from 13,000 to close to 165,000. The public loved the idea of automatic food from the start. And perhaps it wasn’t so strange, as mechanization and industrialization was occurring all around and at a faster rate than ever before.
The Automat was a popular chain of self-serve, waiter-less restaurants opened by Horn & Hardare in Philadelphia and New York City just before the end of the 19th century. This technological wonder wrapped in art deco brilliance has been embraced as an artifact of the urbanization of America. These restaurants were and have been lauded as proof of American progress, and as evidence of the development and rise of the middle class. The public diner has been seen as both a product of and a reaction to the modern spirit of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. It reflects, in so many ways, the demands of the new urban working lifestyle.
These new middle class restaurants catered to customers who were on the go, and at the turn of the century in urban America, everyone was on the go; industry workers and young adults were constantly coming and going to and from their workplace. There were plenty of folks who were attracted to ‘fast’ food simply because they lacked sufficient kitchens and suffered cramped living quarters, even the beggars who had slummed a few nickels could share a space with families, who often visited the Automat, some for the convenience, some for the sheer novelty. Restaurants provided city dwellers with an array of food choices, hot french roasted coffee, cold milk, and even juices, that they could actually afford to spend their wages on. The quick-stop eateries grew in popularity, attracting people from all walks of life for morning coffee or perhaps a lunch meeting.
Dining out has become an integral part of middle class entertainment. We are no strangers to AYCE (All-You-Can-Eat), but this restaurant in Boise was one of the first of its kind.
So, does the Mecanafe signify the urbanization of Boise? Certainly it was marketed towards a working middle class. How can we tell? At this time there is no way to be certain who each of the customers were specifically. But just by looking at the layout we can discern some sense of who the customer base was. For instance, the basement level had stools lined along a bar, which were customarily reserved for men and single male customers. But these second floor booths and tables were meant specifically for families, as we see clearly in this photo. And by all accounts, it was quite popular with Boise families.
If the Mecanafe had been popular because of its novelty alone it may not have lasted as long as it did. The café survived the Great Depression, out-competing several of its contemporaries during those difficult years. It was popular still during WWII. In Boise we have a collection of oral histories made with the women of Boise who came of age during the war years. Many of these women recall eating there with girl friends, for dinner dates, or between shifts at the Mode. Some even took time to stop in on their visits home from working the docks during the War. By all accounts it was well liked and popularly remembered. It closed in 1945, due to presently unknown circumstances.
The last Automat, in New York City, finally gave way to a Burger King in 1991. The original Automat resides in the Smithsonian’s American History display to this day.
Have a question about Boise’s history? Ask a Historian.
Suggestions for further Reading
Crowley, Carolyn Hughes. “Meet me at the Automat: Horn & Hardart gave big city Americans a taste of good fast food in its chrome-and-glass restaurants” Smithsonian Magazine (August 2001)
Diehl, Lorraine B. and Marianne Hardart. The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece (University of Michigan, 2002)
 Tim Woodward, Idaho Statesman, February 18, 2009.
 Andrew Haley, Turning of the Tables: The Aristocratic Restaurant and the Rise of the American Middle Class 1880-1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
 Haley, pp. 72-73
 Arthur Hart, Idaho Statesman, May 8, 2011
 A few examples from the Women of World War II Oral History collection at the Idaho State Historical Society Public Archives and Research Library
 Carolyn Hughes Crowley “Meet me at the Automat” Smithsonian (2011)