"Dinner and a movie" has been the backbone of date night in America since, well, the beginning of motion pictures. But enjoying entire meals at the movies is a relatively new phenomenon, with small chains and independent cinemas popping up around the country to serve dishes like country-fried steak, shrimp bowls, dosas, flatbread pizzas, spumoni ice cream, and "Million Dollar Milkshakes" along with the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or art-house classic.
According to Bret Thorn, senior food editor at Nation's Restaurant News, there's been a noticeable uptick in cinemas offering moviegoers food that ventures beyond stale nachos with fake cheese and giant boxes of Nestlé Crunch, most notably the national chain AMC, which opened more than 40 screens with a dining option.
But there are challenges to serving a meal in the darkness of a movie theater.
"You want food that you don't need cutlery for, so that you're not clinking on plates; you want food that's not going to drip or spill or make people slurp; and you want food that can be delivered easily and seamlessly without interrupting the movie—and that requires laying out the restaurants properly and really strategizing how to get food to people," Thorn says.
It's a system that's still working out the kinks, Thorn says. He has yet to find an operation that seamlessly delivers dinner into the theater. Some, like Brooklyn, New York's Nitehawk, have a low-tech paper flagging system that shows servers you're ready to order. Others, like those at the AMC chain, suggest moviegoers arrive 30 minutes ahead of time to get the full dinner-at-the-movies experience.
Some of these, like New Orleans' Theatres at Canal Place and select AMC Dine-In Theatres, put an 18 (and sometimes 21) years or older restriction on their dinner theaters, where mixed drinks and pints of beer are available for consumption.
With restaurants on the high and low end turning dining into a theatrical experience, movie houses really have to go the extra mile to make dinner dishes in the dark work.
"If the movie is the focus, I think the dining experience might suffer," he says. "There are restaurants that show movies; the most notable one is probably Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, where you have really tasty food—in not quite a fine-dining style, but in an upscale style, and then you have a movie playing in the background. But most people aren't there to watch the movie. They're there to enjoy a meal."
Still, the theaters listed below have managed to find success thanks to such draws as bigger, more comfortable seats, themed food-and-movie pairings, craft beers, and couture cocktails.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
This chain from deep in the heart of Texas, whose programming includes both new releases and more esoteric films, has expanded to include outposts on both coasts (San Francisco and a soon-to-open one in Yonkers, New York). While foods like burgers and wraps—and beer, of course, with special emphasis on local breweries—are available any old time, annual Valentine's Day events offer more; this year's Princess Bride Feast featured two wines bottled under the Princess Bride label especially for the occasion. The Food & Film series in Austin has included a Lawrence of Arabia five-course feast and a Moroccan-themed menu for a screening of Casablanca.
AMC Dine-In Theatres
Flatbread pizzettas, country-fried steak, cheesecake, and Sour Apple Martinis are among the items moviegoers can try at the AMC Dine-In Theatre. The chain has experimented with two types of theaters—Cinema Suites and the more casual Fork & Screen. Both serve the same menu, but cocktails figure more prominently at the Cinema Suites, where guests must be 21 or older. Call buttons on the seats allow patrons to order grub during the film.
This three-location chain in North Carolina serves food at its Asheville theater only, with a menu akin to one you'd find at your local pub—salads, flatbread sandwiches, and pizzas—and a wide selection of beer (including seasonal drafts from such local breweries as Pisgah, Highland, and Catawba) to match it.
This Seattle revival house—specializing in cult classics, independent releases, and foreign films—offers appetizers like chèvre-stuffed dates and pigs-in-a-blanket along with such entrées as pulled-pork sandwiches, braised short ribs, and bacon arugula pizza served by waiters to guests sitting in diner-style booths. A TV Dinner program pairs food with old and new television favorites like The X-Files and Glee.