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Screen Cuisine

Today's dine-in movie theaters are saving the silver screen, one meal at a time
Dine-In Movie Theaters Are Saving the Silver Screen
Illustration: Marcea Decker/Tasting Table

Somewhere between "Here's looking at you, kid" and "I volunteer as tribute!" the classic concept of dinner and a movie has become something closer to Netflix and chill. With the rise of streaming services and the increasing comfort of just staying in, a part of the cinema-going experience has died.

Don't get us wrong: We're all for an era of television that's given us Stranger Things and Transparent. Still, we can't help but fantasize about "the good old days," when the Bogies and Bacalls (or even Fishers and Fords) of the world ruled the silver screen. The days when people still valued the collective experience of laughing or crying through a film among a roomful of strangers, and overly buttery barrels of popcorn didn't leave a bad taste in their mouths.

Across the U.S., however, movie theaters of all sizes and styles are taking the cinematic experience back, with the help of America's two favorite pastimes: eating and drinking. Dine-in movie theaters are having a heyday, offering sofa-like seats with individual dining tables, gourmet eat-in menus, and full draft beer and cocktail lists that are once again making a trip to the movies irresistible.

The phenomenon ranges from small, unique establishments like Brooklyn's Syndicated and Manhattan's Metrograph to growing boutique chains like Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and scales all the way up to powerhouse establishments like AMC and iPic.

". . . I love having those creature comforts combined with watching interesting cinema. It just made for a fuller experience in my opinion," says Matthew Viragh, who opened Brooklyn mainstay Nitehawk Cinema in 2011 after lobbying for years to change a Prohibition-era law that kept alcohol out of movie theaters. This year, Nitehawk will open a second location in Park Slope. "As the dine-in cinema trend has amplified over the last year or so, it's clear there's an increasing demand and enthusiasm for it."

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Tim Chung of restaurant/movie theater hybrid Syndicated adds, "I think good food at a movie theater is still quite a novelty."

The new Bushwick favorite, which opened as a 100-seat dining room and 56-seat adjoining theater last year, serves a full menu in both the dining area and movie-viewing space. Diners can down a juicy Royale with Cheese (otherwise known as a cheeseburger, for the non-Tarantino fans out there), while they watch films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to Manchester by the Sea. With ticket prices as low as $4, Syndicated makes it hard to say no.

"We've seen a lot of enthusiasm for the idea. People come in for the movie, stay for dinner, and make it an evening," Chung explains.

While Syndicated's small size and single-screen concept make it (in some ways) easy to control the quality of the experience, larger versions of this new and improved dinner theater are being executed across the U.S. with great success as well.

Take AMC. Though the chain already has more than 650 traditional movie theater locations nationwide, it's opened around 25 spots with full kitchens and dine-in service.

"I certainly think the time aspect plays into it," Jennifer Douglass, who oversees AMC Dine-In operations, says. "You're able to see a movie, get dinner and have drinks at the bar, all at the same time and location, which compresses the night and makes it more manageable."

Since opening more locations, Douglass says enthusiasm for the concept has increased. "Nationwide, we continue to expand, because it's been so popular."

While convenience and good food might be the factors driving viewers into theaters once more, it's the feeling of watching a film in these dedicated spaces that keeps them coming back.

At Alamo Drafthouse, which started as a local favorite in Austin, Texas, and has expanded to more than 35 dinner theaters across the U.S., that means a focus on proper viewing etiquette and commitment to preserving the collective viewing experience.

Photo: Nick Simonite

The new Brooklyn location, for example, is outfitted with countless vintage movie posters, a creepy but cool wax museum/cocktail bar and an exact replica of the unmistakable geometric carpet from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. It's a place made by cinephiles, for cinephiles—for people who want to watch movies the way they're meant to be seen.

"We want to save cinema and the moviegoing experience," Trish Eichelberger, national research and development chef at Alamo, explains. "Curation and attention to detail set us apart, but the special events are our secret sauce."

That might mean the Founder's Feast event that accompanied McDonald's origin story The Founder or the La La Land specials served  in Alamo theaters across the country.

"The La La Land menu came out of Austin. Our founder [Tim League] saw it and immediately said, 'We have to do something with chicken on a stick,'" Eichelberger says. "We then developed the recipes and sent them to any interested Alamo location."

Anyone who's seen the modern-day musical will understand the importance of being able to taste chicken on a stick, as well as Alamo's cocktail pairing, appropriately named City of Stars (get the recipe).

This type of curated experience, bringing the film to life, is what's finally convincing viewers to seek out cinema.

Ironically, La La Land itself alludes to this very idea. When the cast of Hollywood dreamers describe their goals of hitting it big, they're seeking not the blockbuster phenomenons of today, but the classic, Old Hollywood films that convinced them to pursue the movie business in the first place. When viewers watch the film in today's modern dinner theater, they're taking a step closer to that idyllic cinema experience as well.

The lyrics of La La Land's opening number sum it up perfectly, "We'd sink into our seats right as they dimmed out all the lights. A Technicolor world made out of music and machine. It called me to be on that screen. And live inside each scene."

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