The Andy Warhol New York City Diet
Warhol’s obsession with the Automat and his dream to start a restaurant chain of his own.
Warhol may have famously professed to wanting to be a machine, but what he really liked was the idea of mechanization as it relates to magic, particularly as it comes down to us in childhood. His two main means of working were recording and imprinting images by way of the Polaroid camera and the silk screen. Pictures could be developed instantly, and images could be repeated over and over.
Image by Walter Green.
Of course, Warhol loved the Automat. You put your nickel in the slot, opened the little windowed door (just as if you had a private box at the post office), and there was a piece of pie on a plate, ready and waiting. Instant gratification, and more or less the same every time.
And don't forget that Warhol was an unrepentant voyeur. With the windowed doors at the Automat and the post office, there was a whole world on the other side, and these little portals, once open, allowed one to spy, if only momentarily, on the people and goings-on behind them. There is clearly a libidinal aspect to the situation, and it could not have been lost on Warhol—a private peepshow, a quickie, for a nickel a pop. And to what extent was there a sexual charge of possibility in the dining room itself? Was the Automat a pickup place in the ’50s? Horn & Hardart may have been a family-oriented business, but in cities like New York and Philadelphia, where they first opened, almost any public place was a cruising area, especially in the buttoned-up and more naive ‘40s and ’50s. When you add in the fact that food and sex have always had a rather amorous relationship, suddenly the banana split doesn't seem so innocent anymore.
Warhol in the ’60s, looking back to a decade earlier—when he started to become well-known, to make and be able to spend money—may have begun, in effect, to live his second childhood. That simpler time had to have included meals at the Automat. Ever frugal, Warhol probably also cherished what could guiltlessly have been a tip-free dining experience. For someone who felt perennially on his own, especially when he was surrounded by an entourage and hangers-on, the Automat may have represented a way to be sociable without making the least effort, which is part of why movie theaters remain popular. As he remarks in The Philosophy:
My favorite restaurant atmosphere has always been the atmosphere of the good, plain American lunchroom or even the good, plain American lunch counter. The old-style Schrafft’s and the old-style Chock Full o’Nuts are absolutely the only things in the world that I'm truly nostalgic for. The days were carefree in the 1940s and 1950s when I could go into a Chocks for my cream cheese sandwich with nuts on date-nut bread and not worry about a thing. No matter what changes or how fast, the one thing we always need is real good food so we can know what the changes are and how fast they’re coming. Progress is very important and exciting in everything but food. When you say you want an orange, you don’t want someone asking you, “An orange what?”
I really like to eat alone. I want to start a chain of restaurants for other people like me called ANDY-MATS—“The Restaurant for the Lonely Person.” You get your food and then you take your tray into a booth and watch television.
This was in 1975. Within two years, Warhol had moved closer to his dream, but one that was never meant to be. There were still Automats at the time (the last closed in 1991), but the Andy-Mat would be very different from the coin-operated system that had been in place since the early 1900s. In Warhol’s restaurant, diners would make their selections from the menu and, rather than rely on a waiter or waitress, would order their meals by speaking through a kind of phone system set up at each table, connected directly to the kitchen. The food, however, wouldn’t be cooked on the premises, but zapped and served there, just like on an airplane. The kitchen of the Andy-Mat, as befits its creator’s particular disposition, would be push-button—for all intents and purposes, a large microwave oven. Envisioned as an international chain, the first one was scheduled to open in the fall of ’77 in New York at 74th Street and Madison Avenue.
There is a picture of Warhol in which he’s seated at a conference table, with three men standing around him dressed in mostly dapper suits and ties, as he is himself, and holding small plates of food and glasses. An Andy-Mat sign is tacked to the wall behind them, along with a photo and floor plans for the proposed eatery. Although an uncorked bottle of champagne is prominently displayed on the table, no one looks particularly enthused. Warhol himself can only be described as appearing worried and empty-handed, pretending neither to eat nor drink. According to GOOD:
This photo shows Andy Warhol with his Andy-Mat restaurant business partners, architect Araldo Cossutta, developer Geoffrey Leeds, and financier C. Cheever Hardwick III. According to restaurant historian Jan Whitaker, “Warhol’s concept included pneumatic tubes through which customers’ orders would be whooshed into the kitchen. The meals served in Andy-Mats, in keeping with the times, were to be frozen dinners requiring only reheating.”