After a half-century reign at the top of the It’s-Saturday-And-What-Else-Is-There-To-Freaking-Do hierarchy, dinner-and-a-movie is currently reveling in its biggest innovation since the pretzel bite. Dubbed the “dine-in theater”, this Michael Bay-ian explosion of booze, burgers, and blockbusters believes it’s too damn hard to pick BOTH where to eat and what to see (especially once the GF is involved), and offers a simple solution in return: Eat here, drink here, watch here.
BUT WAIT. WHERE CAN I FIND THEM? WHAT MOVIES DO THEY PLAY? CAN I BRING MY CAT? Just breathe. Don’t worry. We’re here to break it all down—from the major chains to the must-have menu items—so grab one of these cushy recliners (yes, they have those), chug this boozy milkshake (those too), and relax as The Rock roundhouse kicks some vaguely Russian henchman in the windpipe. By the time we’re through, something tells us you’ll never watch a movie the same way again.
OK, so where can I find one of these things?
That depends. While a rapidly growing niche, the dine-in theater craze is still just that—a niche. In fact, of the 5,700 theaters in America, the National Association of Theatre Owners estimates only 700 feature food and drink options. In other words, if you don’t live near a population hub, you might have to settle for a TV dinner and that PG-edited version of Lethal Weapon 4 on TNT…again.
With that said, Alamo Drafthouse—which launched in Austin back in ‘97—is definitely your best bet, featuring 26 locations from BK to KC to LA. A chain theater without the chain-theater feel (i.e. sticky floors, the sounds of a couple reenacting Basic Instinct in the back row), Alamo has gone toe-to-toe with big boys like AMC, who responded with their own 20-theater AMC Dine-In line, including screens in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida, and more.
If you’re looking to get luxe, meanwhile, iPic has laid claim to that swanky, leather-clad corner of the market with 16 locations from Miami to downtown Manhattan (where a “premium plus” seat costs a whopping $29). Mexico-based theater giant Cinépolis—the fourth largest theater chain in the world—is not far behind, however, wisely tailoringU.S. locations like Del Mar and Hartford to the BMW audience.
Yet, despite all the accessibility and pampering these chains offer, hallowed independents like Williamsburg’s Nitehawk Cinema and The Commodore Theatre in Virginia still reign supreme, with local beer, enthusiastic audiences, and one-of-a-kind charm making each screening feel less like a movie and more like an event. Needless to say, if you’re lucky enough to live near one of these local legends, a pilgrimage is a must.
But do they only play my movies my mom likes?
Unless your mom digs Predator, 70s kung-fu, and 35mm erotic horror, then no. But don’t worry, in addition to dine-ins’ regularly rotating lineup of cult classics, holiday screenings, and micro-fests, they also offer every new release you’d find at the local Loews, often with immersive experiences attached. These can be as simple as cast Q&As and as elaborate as the Star Wars-themed lobby design and menu that Alamo rolled out for the premiere of The Force Awakens back in 2015. A word to the wise, though: If you’re interested in the special stuff, act fast. Once fandom gets involved, tickets evaporate quicker than the polar ice caps.
Thankfully, these elaborate events aren’t simply the domain of the Big Boys, with recurring series like Nitehawk’s Country Brunchin’—which pairs live country and folk music with classic Westerns and a special brunch menu—offering a truly WTF-worthy movie experience. If you’re still fuzzy on how that all comes together, just check out their Cinco De Mayo screening of Three Amigos, replete with a live mariachi band, and the picture will become immediately clear.
Brunch? What if I just want popcorn?
That’s OK, popcorn is still on the menu. But do you know what pairs perfectly with popcorn? A nice California red hand-selected by advanced sommelier Adam Seger, who helms the bar program at iPic’s little black dress-dotted dining concept, The Tuck Room. More of a beer guy? We feel you, and so does Alamo’s newest location in Brookyln, which boasts a ridiculous nitro draft selection in their macabre House of Wax—a dimly lit vestige of Old London lined with nightmare-ish sculptures plucked straight from a Victorian waxworks.
Of course, with all that booze flowing, you’re going to want something to help soak it up, and that’s where the “dine” comes in. iPic has James Beard award-winning chef Sherry Yard to thank for the Yes, Chef Burger—topped with candied bacon and slathered in bone-marrow aioli—while purist New York haunt Metrograph Cinema serves up cheese plates, classic steak frites, and whole-roasted trout in the Commissary, an airy dining space inspired by the studio cafés of Golden Age Hollywood.
If you’re looking for something a little simpler, however, then you can order from your seat, eat from your seat, and pay from your seat without having to do anything other than remember to chew. This is where the likes of AMC Dine-In and Alamo excel, offering up nachos, flatbread pizzas, grain bowls, and a dairy farm’s worth of meal-sized milkshakes. All you have to do is write your order down and the wait staff will collect it, deliver it (hopefully not during the car chase), and leave you the hell alone. The hardest part is eating in the dark, but at least all the practice you got scarfing down DiGiornio during your last 3 am Netflix binge won’t go to waste.
I still don’t get it
If you’ve ever showed up late to movie and had to sit separately from your date, ate Cookie Dough Bites for dinner at a post-work screening, or said “I’m feel like going to a movie, but there’s nothing I want to see”, then there’s really nothing left to get. Reserved seating? Ding. Dinner? Ding. Classic film programming? Ding, ding, ding. On a more fundamental level, however, the growing plethora of dine-in theater options is helping to turn dinner-and-a-movie—long the “for-lack-of-a better-idea" option—into the better idea. And if that isn’t worth a front-row seat to you, then you’re doing your weekends all wrong.