Discover the history of the Automatic Bar at the Hotel Continental, a pioneer in Spain

In 1932, in the heart of the Rambla de Canaletas, our grandfather Francisco Malagarriga Fabra, married to Concepción Miralbell Centena, inaugurated a place that would become a milestone in the Spanish and European gastronomic scene: the Automatic Bar. Located in the Hotel Continental, this establishment emerged as a pioneer of its kind, introducing a revolutionary concept in the country that represented the forefront of modernity. Our grandparents were accustomed to traveling and visiting hotels in Europe and the United States, which inspired the idea to open the “Automatic Bar” in Barcelona. They also installed revolving doors, one of the first in the city. The Automatic Bar at the Hotel Continental offered a unique experience: its counters displayed small glass compartments where, after inserting a coin, customers could serve themselves. Similar establishments emerged in places like Madrid or Tangier as popular meeting points, with a careful and contemporary design for the time. This phenomenon not only transformed the way people experienced gastronomy but also symbolized a change in the culture and lifestyle of the era.

The outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 forced the closure of the Automatic Bar

After the start of the Spanish Civil War and the post-war period, the bar had to close. Moreover, the Hotel Continental was confiscated by the “red” faction, and our family had to abandon it. My father’s sister, who at 97 years old retains spectacular lucidity, memory, and physical condition, told me how a bomb was placed at the hotel entrance. My grandfather had fired a concierge due to clear evidence of theft. After this, he received death threats if he did not rehire the man, but my grandfather did not give in to this blackmail, and that is why they exploded a bomb at the hotel entrance. This caused the then-concierge to almost lose both his legs. It didn’t happen because he was quickly taken to the Hospital Clinic, where he underwent surgery. Interestingly, he needed a transfusion of type O blood, and my father Jose María Malagarriga Miralbell was the donor. In those days, transfusions were done directly from person to person. Then came the post-war period and with it, the dictatorship… it is a pity that the Automatic Bar never reopened.

The documentary “The Automat”

Discover in the documentary “The Automat,” available on HBO exclusively for viewers in the United States, a fascinating journey through the history of these emblematic establishments, featuring prominent figures. Mel Brooks, a renowned actor and director, leads this documentary released in 2022, even contributing a unique musical composition for the occasion. This documentary reveals the cultural and historical importance that Horn & Hardart’s Automats had for multiple generations of Americans. Various factors contributed to their success: the food, affordable and remembered for its simplicity and quality, was fundamental. In 2002, the book “The Automat: The History, Recipes, and Allure of Horn & Hardart’s Masterpiece” compiled some of the most popular recipes, such as savory pies, tarts, creamed spinach, and beans. Coffee also played a crucial role, noted for its quality and the iconic price of five cents.

The social impact of Horn & Hardart’s Automats in the United States

For sociologists and historians, automats were much more than just places to eat. For decades, they played a vital role in the social mechanisms of the time: For immigrants arriving in New York in the first half of the 20th century, automats provided a solution to language barriers and an opportunity to integrate into American culture without needing to interact verbally to order food. Moreover, in the 1920s, with the incorporation of women into the workforce, thousands of women found a safe haven in these establishments for lunch, in contrast to traditional restaurants perceived as male-dominated spaces. During prosperous periods, automats symbolized capitalist optimism, offering a wide variety of food at affordable prices for everyone. However, during the Great Depression of 1929, these establishments became an indispensable refuge, providing hot coffee and economical dishes that were a lifeline for many people in times of economic hardship. The social legacy of Horn & Hardart’s Automats transcends their gastronomic function, leaving an indelible mark on the history and culture of the United States.

The stories of the Hotel Continental after 7 generations of hotel tradition

On this blog, we enjoy sharing moments from the history that have marked our family, our business, and our city. We are family-run hotels with a great vocation for service, and we want to share our history with you because it has soul and the ambition to infect you with our love for hospitality, family, and our city Barcelona. Thank you for reading, and we invite you to leave us comments and questions!

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