The dine-in theater model is exploding, but that doesn't mean it trumps good old fashioned popcorn and soda
American movie theaters all smell the same: salty and buttery and buoyant and rich. The multiplex, with its roomy seats and bulging 3-D graphics, is hard to imagine without a coating of salt and fat and sugar; the image of a female movie-goer stress-eating handfuls of popcorn during a horror flick is practically iconic. Movies are a place for eating, and have been since theaters began to sell popcorn at concession counters during the Great Depression on account of how cheap and easy it was to make. Sodas, sweets, and chips soon followed; today, it’s hard to overstate the ubiquity of snacking in front of a screen. That is the case culturally, but also financially: almost half of all theater profits come from concessions, not cinema.
The thing is, movies run all day, not just in the evening—which means that at these theaters, particularly new ones like the Alamo Drafthouse that serves full meals and a cocktail menu, dinner shouldn’t be the only option. Enter brunch at the movies. It doesn’t sound like the greatest first date, but it isn’t the worst way to escape the Sunday blues. For me, it’s especially appealing: I love mornings, and, to my great embarrassment, have been known to fall asleep at late shows. So I decided to test out the concept myself this winter; it was something to do during those blustery days, and definitely beat waiting in line for a mediocre brunch.
On a freezing Saturday in late January, I dragged my boyfriend out of bed, worked out (for appetite reasons) and walked over to the Alamo in downtown Brooklyn for a midday screening of Hidden Figures. I didn’t particularly want to see the film, but the other matinees were cartoons—clearly, Alamo is not quite catering to the adult brunch crowd yet—and it got great reviews. If I did not like it, I reasoned, at least there would be brunch. The theater is up two flights of elevators in a new, large and mostly empty mall; we sat in roomy recliners that we booked in advance, connected by a table for two. A discreet lamp lit large, laminated menus that fit under the table, and a notepad for placing orders throughout the show. There’s plenty of room between rows, so if you need to dash in the middle of the film you can. It also allows servers in black uniforms to shuttle back and remain as unobtrusive as possible.
As the ads blared on the screen, I looked over the menu: there were flatbreads, macaroni and cheese, burgers and cookies. Not quite brunch, but not far off, either. I settled on a steak sandwich with sweet potato fries, and a mocktail with peach juice and cayenne. My drink arrived quickly, and was delicious, but the chilies were so spicy that it made me cough. I would have felt rude had there been more people to bother in the largely empty room. I gulped water, which made strange noises in my empty stomach.
The ads dragged on, and the movie finally began. I quickly realized that concentrating on a film when you’re extremely hungry and waiting for a steak sandwich to materialize is difficult and frankly, not very fun. I watched servers come and go as I would if I were ravenous in a restaurant, but this distracted me from the plot, then disappointed me when the meal they were bringing over was not for me. It also made me much more aware of what people were eating in the film itself. There is a lot of delicious- looking soul food in Hidden Figures, and for a moment, I regretted getting a sandwich instead of macaroni and cheese or fried chicken. But as soon as my sandwich arrived, I felt vindicated: the ciabatta was warm, the meat was cooked just right, and the sauce was garlicky and good. The fries at the Alamo were great, too—so great that my boyfriend ate most of them.
A couple of weeks later, I tried out the artisanal version of the brunch movie with a re-run of Friday Night Lights at the Nitehawk theater in Williamsburg. It’s small, retro, and cute—nothing like the cavernous Alamo—and had a dedicated brunch menu offering baked goods and eggs. I was ravenous and hung over, and the air-conditioning was on full blast even though it was pouring wintry mix outside, so I ordered a bloody mary to take the edge off. It was perfect: smoky, spicy (but not too spicy!), with good pickle action. I was grateful for the cup holders, which made the theater’s somewhat small tables less of a liability, and I ordered an egg sandwich with bacon, arugula, aioli and tater tots with high expectations. It seemed like a fittingly American meal to go with a movie about football.
What appeared in front of me some twenty minutes later was American in a congealed truck-stop way. The sandwich was barely better than an Aramark concession-stand hotdog; the tots were soggy, the portions miserly, and the A/C made the food go cold right away. My companion’s breakfast burrito looked like it came off the shelf of a 7-11, but he assured me it was okay (he definitely stole some of my potatoes). It was a disappointing brunch experience offset only by the fact that the movie is a classic, and I could feast my eyes on attractive football players instead. I left the movie mildly annoyed, and snacked my way through the afternoon binge-watching Better Call Saul under a fake fur blanket. Food and movies were much more enjoyable on my couch.
I did learn some important rules for serving brunch—or any food—at a movie theater, though. The meal should be portable, not too spicy, and taste good even if it gets a bit cold. It should take a while to eat, or come in large portions. And it should be unremarkable enough so as not to distract from the film itself, but satisfying enough to carry you through a boring scene.
In other words, the best kind of movie theater food is… a snack. We had it right all along.