Before there were fast-food restaurants, and long before there was fast-casual, there was a dining experience that was faster and casual-er than anything that would follow it. The automat, the original server-less restaurant, took the logic of the vending machine to a social extreme: It offered, generally, a wall of small cubbies that contained food both fresh and less so, prepared by unseen humans. Patrons could drop a few coins into the slots, and out would pop a cheeseburger or a tuna salad or a candy bar, instantly and readily and just a little bit magically.
Automats were convenient and fast and, for a time in U.S. history, extremely common; the main thing about them, though, was that they were extremely cheap. They were places you went, generally, when you had no place else to go, and were particularly popular in cities, providing sustenance to laborers and artists. Neil Simon once called the automat “the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised,” which sums the whole thing up pretty well. For most of American history, the dining-out experience has been closely tied with the social experience of being served; take away the servers, and what you were doing was less “dining” than simply “eating.”