“Penny restaurants” began in the late 19th century in cities across the United States. Usually operated as charitable programs to provide inexpensive meals to the needy, these eateries became most prominent during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The most famous in New York City were run by an unlikely owner, Bernarr MacFadden, a physical fitness enthusiast. He opened his first in 1931 on Third Avenue between 34th and 35th Streets. Dishes like oatmeal, soup, bread, and cereal coffee were a penny each. MacFadden hoped the success of his restaurants would demonstrate the feasibility of feeding the hungry inexpensively, according to The New York Times on December 30, 1931. He later opened a four-story restaurant on West 44th Street with one floor where diners could stand and eat simple food.
The concept of penny restaurants pretty much died out with the end of the Depression and the advent of World War II.
See: “During the Great depression, ‘Penny Restaurants’ Fed the Unemployed” on the Atlas Obscura website (2018)
Photo: The Library of Congress