Andy Warhol Was Obsessed With Automats—and He Dreamed of Starting a Restaurant Chain of His Own

What to eat. What not to eat.
July 4 2012 7:15 AM

The Andy Warhol New York City Diet

Warhol’s obsession with the Automat and his dream to start a restaurant chain of his own.

Lucky Peach Logo.

The following is the second part of an article adapted from the latest issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly journal of food and writing. (Read the first part here.) It is available online only in Slate.

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.

Bacon.

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.

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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.”

Warhol’s friend Maxime de la Falaise, the former model, food editor of Vogue, and author of Seven Centuries of English Cooking, had designed the menu for the restaurant, which was to feature entrées such as shepherd’s pie and Irish lamb stew, key lime pie for dessert, and the signature “nursery cocktail” of milk on the rocks. Warhol’s tastes and Americanness inclined him to celebrate what was satisfying and unpretentious, what was tasty, not what was necessarily expensive. Again from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol:

In Europe the royalty and the aristocracy used to eat a lot better than the peasants—they weren’t eating the same things at all. It was either partridge or porridge, and each class stuck to its own food. But when Queen Elizabeth came here and President Eisenhower bought her a hot dog I’m sure he felt confident that she couldn’t have had delivered to Buckingham Palace a better hot dog than that one he bought for her for maybe twenty cents at the ballpark. Because there is no better hot dog than a ballpark hot dog. Not for a dollar, not for ten dollars, not for a hundred thousand dollars could she get a better hot dog. She could get one for twenty cents and so could anybody else.

After Warhol’s death, an auction of his belongings was organized, and it was noted that he had a large collection of cookie jars. But in Warhol’s world, these could have been places to stash valuables, small velvet bags of uncut gems, for example, rather than baked goods. To be found with one’s hands in the cookie jar would mean that you had been caught stealing, an Americanism Warhol would have grown up with. His eating habits may have been simple, but with all his self-confessed fondness for sweets it’s surprising that he was always slim (and that he never suffered from scurvy).

Usually when artists—especially male artists—make a lot of money, they start to get wider and more rotund, their success visibly tipping the scales, and not in their favor where physique is concerned. This never happened to Andy Warhol. Warhol’s secret to staying in shape was easy enough: When you go to a restaurant—and he dined out frequently—never order anything you’re actually interested in eating. Once again you have to keep in mind that while Warhol was forthcoming with reporters and in his writing, he wasn’t always truthfully so. Better to offer an evasively interesting response and tell a good story or come up with a quotable one-liner than to answer a question directly and be completely honest. And yet on the subject of what he identified as his New York Diet in The Philosophy, you can’t help but give him the benefit of the doubt.

... [W]hen I order in a restaurant, I order everything that I don’t want, so I have a lot to play around with while everyone else eats. Then, no matter how chic the restaurant is, I insist that the waiter wrap the entire plate up like a to-go order, and after we leave the restaurant I find a little corner outside in the street to leave the plate in, because there are so many people in New York who live in the streets, with everything they own in shopping bags.

So I lose weight and stay trim, and I think that maybe one of those people will find a Grenouille dinner on the window ledge. But then, you never know, maybe they wouldn't like what I ordered as much as I didn’t like it, and maybe they’d turn up their noses and look through the garbage for some half-eaten rye bread. You just never know with people. You just never know what they’ll like, what you should do for them.

So that's the Andy Warhol New York City Diet.

Warhol, who wasn’t straight, and never had a life partner, and lived long before gay marriage, somehow felt obliged in The Philosophy to identify a perfect mate, whom he referred to as a wife. As a man who always felt that he was the one who had to be the provider, he wished that the tables were turned. And of course he still wanted to be famous. As he writes:

My ideal wife would have a lot of bacon, bring it all home, and have a TV station besides.

Bob Nickas is a writer and curator based in New York. He writes the VICE column, “Komplaint Dept.” His most recent book is Catalog of the Exhibition: 1984-2011, from 2nd Cannons Publications.

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