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Movie Theater Concession Stand Food Fight: Arclight vs. The Landmark

There was a time, in the early days of movie theater history, when you would buy a ticket to, say, Battleship Potemkin and, sadly, would have to watch this ultimate popcorn movie without the popcorn. According to Slate's brief history of the movie theater concession stand, theater owners refrained from selling snacks in an effort to distinguish their decidedly more refined form of entertainment from the peanut-throwing gallery at burlesque shows. Some permitted vendors to walk up and down the theater aisles, hawking their wares the way the hot guy guy does it at Dodger stadium.

But, times changed. The Great Depression forced theaters to seek other sources of revenue, television standardized the practice of mindless snacking in front of a screen, and in-house concession stands became standard in all theaters. Stale popcorn with fake butter has dominated most of the multiplexes ever since. Fortunately, we have the Arclight and The Landmark, cinema houses that apply the same high standards to the movie going experience as they do to their concession stands. For today's food fight, we compare the assortment of movie snacks at the Arclight and The Landmark.

The Arclight's concession stand
The Arclight's concession stand
T. Nguyen

The Arclight, with its reserved seating and ushers who gleefully introduce each movie, aims to take care of every last detail, including at the concession stand. Case in point: The two types of popcorn (regular and caramel) are served in cups "to reduce that annoying rustling sound." Both are popped fresh regularly throughout the day, leaving that stale, squeaky popcorn to the black hole that is the popcorn machine at your local Edwards Cinemas.

"Real butter" can be added on request, a nice detail that is only dampened the mean calculation of exactly how many ounces of fake butter you have consumed at various theaters up until this point. Most of the time, they'll make a point of asking you if you would like the butter to be alternatively layered with the popcorn, so you won't be stuck with butter-less popcorn midway through the bag. Not that that would be such a horrible thing: The popcorn here is miles better than most movie theater popcorn, crunchy and salty in the right places.

The housemade caramel popcorn might be even better. It's so special, in fact, that it's served, still warm, in plastic, resealable cups. Sprinkles founder Candace Nelson named these as the best crunchy thing she ever ate. We're not quite there, but the combination of fresh popcorn and caramel is a deliciously crunchy alternative to regular popcorn. Someone suggested that we throw in a bag of M&Ms to make it a chocolate caramel popcorn concoction, which we almost tried, but did not.

Outside of the popcorns, the only other noteworthy item on Arclight's concession menu is its "sausage baguette," offered in addition to the regular all-beef hot dog. You have your choice of a chicken-apple or jalapeno mango, topped with a spicy mustard or watermelon BBQ sauce. These are all phrases that seem to be oddly out of place on the theater's otherwise simple menu.

There is a half-hearted attempt at offering an eclectic selection of candies, with Lindt chocolates and the triangular Toblerone box sitting on the top shelf of the small candy display case. But, because the Arclight recognizes that we are at a movie theater to see Bridesmaids for the third time and not at a duty-free airport shop to pass the time, it also offers venue-appropriate options: M&Ms, Milk Duds, Sour Patch Kids, Red Vines.

Further towards the Westside (and, aggravatingly, not playing Bridesmaids), The Landmark has LCD menus that boast about the quality of its popcorn: popped fresh in sunflower oil, also with real butter upon request. Like the Arclight, The Landmark also will offer to layer the butter with the popcorn. It serves it in a paper bag, though, so you will have to deal with the resulting rustling.

There also is caramel popcorn, but these are brought in from Popcornopolis, bouquets of caramel that are not as good as the Arclight's. In the hot dog department, The Landmark surprisingly foregoes any fancy German brats and offers, simply, Hebrew National hot dogs. They probably know better to leave well enough alone.

What really sets The Landmark apart from the Arclight -- or from any other movie theater concession stand, really -- is everything outside of its popcorn selection. Instead of hard, cardboard pretzels, the pretzels here come in the form of warm pretzel loaves from La Brea Bakery. Top shelf candy include Pocky and TimTams, the original, Australian version, not the Pepperidge Farm bastardization. Even the usual candy suspects are taken up a notch: three different kinds of M&Ms (regular, peanut, and pretzel), Twizzlers and Red Vines to satisfy both camps, Haribo Gummy Bears, Swedish Fish. The theater also has Sahale nuts and Smart Fries in case you inexplicably want a "healthy" snack while watching X-Men: First Class.

Both theaters lose when it comes to price (overpriced popcorn is to be expected, but $5.50 for that box of Pocky at The Landmark is almost offensive). Nonetheless, the Arclight must concede this one. It may have redefined the moviegoing experience, but it's The Landmark that takes a stand and fills it with the snacks to match the ambition. Just follow the dancing soft drink and hot dog...

The Landmark's concession stand
The Landmark's concession stand
T. Nguyen