Meals at Movie Theaters Are Getting Better — or at Least More Messy
With the proliferation of smartphones, Walmart Supercenters and grocery stores with wine bars slapped awkwardly close to the frozen meats section (lookin’ at you, Westwood Ralph’s), it’s only natural that we expect all our needs to be met by a single thing. And why shouldn’t we? What’s the point of living in the future if we can’t enjoy the convenience of Wi-Fi–enabled sous vide machines and Asian fusion craft beer barcades? We’re inching toward a convenience singularity, and, frankly, it can’t come fast enough.
You can see these gears turning in the restaurant world, too, where all-day spots slinging pastries, and espresso, and grain bowls, and trinkets, and pseudo-groceries from sunup to sundown have become the norm. In the Before Time — the Long Long Ago — we had to Uber to two different places to get our nitrate-free hot dogs and small-batch kombucha. We must never go back.
But there is one industry that’s late to the game in trying to accommodate all our indulgent, bordering on batshit-crazy demands for ultimate convenience, and now it's charging hard to make up lost time. I'm talking about movie theaters.
Going to the movies used to mean a bucket of popcorn, an overpriced box of peanut M&Ms and a barrel-sized Icee, but it also meant going to a separate place for dinner beforehand, which was not very convenient. In the Long Long Ago, a common date activity was “dinner and a movie.” Now, thanks to dine-in theaters such as iPic and Cinepolis, dinner is the movie. Or the movie is dinner. Whatever — the point is, they have waiters bring $21 lobster rolls and $16 liquid nitrogen cocktails right to your foldout tray that’s too reminiscent of the seatback table on a Southwest flight to ever be considered fancy.
Dine-in movie theaters aren’t exactly new; the iPic in Pasadena opened the same year Black Eyed Peas dropped “Boom Boom Pow.” The real novel development is what all the big chain movie theaters — the ones that normal people actually go to — are doing to throw their hats into the food game. AMC Theatres recently announced a full menu overhaul, adding in such Cheesecake Factory circa-2006 menu items as chicken and waffle sandwiches, cheeseburger sliders and flatbreads.
“AMC Feature Fare represents AMC’s first true restaurant-style menu launch in a non–dine-in theater setting, with a menu selection sure to delight the taste buds,” AMC senior vice president of food and beverage George Patterson said in a press release. “By incorporating these new menu items together with new marketing, branding and packaging, AMC Feature Fare will feed our guests’ ever-increasing hunger for unique and satisfying menu choices to enjoy at AMC.”
Other chains are getting in on the action, too. I went to a matinee at the Regal L.A. Live to see what it's doing to capture the foodie audience, and, sure enough, Regal is starting to get real quasi-bougie with its movie munchies. There was a sign at the ticket booth advertising a new beer and wine program, but the bar was closed. I’m not sure if it’s not up and running yet or if they just weren’t expecting anyone to drink at 2:15 p.m. on a Tuesday while watching an Emma Watson movie.
The most ambitious new item at the concessions stand is the $14.99 “Lava BBQ Burger and Waffle Fries Combo.” The cashier said I was the first person she’d ever seen order it, which made it a very exciting time for both of us. It's a mound of pulled pork, onion rings, BBQ sauce, steaming hot pickles, cheese and a burger patty that would have been well done had they pulled it from the heat 10 minutes before they did. It sits in the middle of an extra shiny bun that evokes brioche, but I’m not sure they can legally call it brioche. If you wrapped the Lava BBQ Burger in Carl’s Jr.–branded paper, it would be a dead ringer for one of the chain's novelty promo burgers, albeit a really poorly built one.
As I struggled in the pitch-black theater to shove the burger in my face-hole and discern exactly how much sauce had seeped all the way through my shorts and into my leg hair, I couldn’t help but wonder who this burger’s target audience is. And also why it exists. And also why it cost double what my matinee ticket did. And also if people are eating this on dates because I really hope they are.
The next most ambitious addition to the menu — it’s so ambitious that they devoted an entire menu panel to advertising it — is the “Nachos with Queso Blanco.” Queso blanco means “white cheese” in Spanish. Which is confusing because the usual nachos don’t come with “queso amarillo,” they just come with cheese, though it is most definitely amarillo. Violently amarillo, actually. You also have to pay a 50-cent surcharge to upgrade from queso amarillo to queso blanco. The queso blanco is literally just nacho cheese without the artificial food dye that makes it yellow in the first place. You are paying extra money for the omission of an ingredient. This is, in a word, dumb.
As much as I love this new utopian, convenience-driven future, I’m not sure movie theaters need to be everything to everybody. I missed valuable plot points in The Circle trying to wash ketchup off my hands with ice cubes from my Coke Zero, and I'm never going to get those moments back. You have to applaud the big theater chains trying to catch up to the fancy dine-in joints, but their efforts may be in vain. Best to stick with popcorn for now.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Los Angeles dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.