Movie News & Reviews

At-movie dining is catching on in Sacramento, beyond

Dinner and a movie, a perfect night out in theory, can be a stressful reality.

A workday that ends at 5 or 6 p.m. leaves only a small window to freshen up, fight traffic and dine before a film starts at 7 or 7:30. Eating after the movie also can be problematic. Though many local restaurants claim to be open until 10, the hostess will side-eye you if you try to roll in at 9:45, after taking in the latest Peter Jackson/Tolkien epic.

Thankfully, the convenient option of dinner with a movie now is possible locally, at Rocklin’s Studio Movie Grill, and downtown Sacramento’s Esquire Imax theater. Studio Movie Grill, part of a Texas-based movie chain, opened in December and offers in-seat service of restaurant-level food as well as beer, wine and cocktails. In April, Esquire Imax began serving beer and wine that patrons can take with them into the auditorium, and also beefed (and porked) up its menu with sausages from Sacramento’s Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage.

Sacramento has been slow to adopt the dine-in theater model, which already is popular elsewhere (like Texas and San Francisco). But local theaters began to catch up last year, after the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control became more amenable to alcohol in theaters that offer food more substantial than popcorn and candy.

In Woodland, the historic State Theatre is becoming part of a multiplex, expected to open in March, that will feature an in-house restaurant and alcohol service. Cinema West, the Petaluma company behind that project, also plans to build a six-screen “dinner theatre,” with in-seat food service, in Folsom’s Palladio shopping center, already home to its Palladio 16 Cinemas.

The highly anticipated rotisserie-meat restaurant Empress Tavern, due to open Aug. 31 in the downstairs area of Sacramento’s Crest Theatre, will provide beer, wine, cocktails and takeout food that movie patrons can take upstairs, its owners have said.

Meanwhile, there’s already wine (Woodbridge cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay) in small bottles, and beer on tap (Coors Light, Racer 5, Blue Moon and Ruhstaller 1881) at a K Street theater. News that Esquire had enhanced its food-and-drink menu cheered me, because it meant even more amenities at Esquire, which already boasts a 60-by-80-foot screen and popcorn that’s always fluffy and never too salty. Having eaten local movie theaters’ popcorn for dinner countless times, I feel qualified to deem Esquire’s the best in the area.

A bit of background: I spent most of my newspaper career as a movie critic, and thus many evenings navigating the window between quitting time at the office and 7:30 p.m. preview screenings. The goal was to fill up enough during this window to avoid a possibly unfair appraisal of a film due to hunger. Protein is key, and historically hard to find in theaters, where popcorn and pretzels rule. So I would order hot dogs, which were nearly always over- or underdone.

There’s a big difference between those hot dogs and the juicy, peppery Morant’s hot-link sandwich at the Esquire, which is served with fixings – such as mustard, sauerkraut and jalapeño – added to order by the theater counter person.

The hot link cost $8.50, and the equally tasty Ruhstaller 1881 red ale – a beer that’s substantial without being heavy – ordered with it was $9.50. That’s pricey considering it costs $18 to enter the theater. But convenience costs.

We also liked the chicken tenders ($7.50), which were crisp and not too greasy. Aside from these items, however, the Esquire’s food selections, including Freschetta pizza and White Castle burgers, do not differ much from what’s available at other theaters.

Drinking alcohol in a theater was a mixed experience. They say alcohol heightens feelings you already have sober, and my feelings about comic-book movies, sober and on one Ruhstaller, are thus: I don’t want to see them, especially not in 3-D. But “Ant-Man” was showing in 3-D the first night we visited the Esquire, and I was so focused on food and drink that I did not consider the film I was about to see until the giant “Marvel” logo flashed on the screen during the opening titles. Things went downhill from there.

Would I have been more open to “Ant-Man” without the beer? Maybe. But again, predisposition comes in. The Ruhstaller I drank on my second Esquire visit, to see the (non-3-D) “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” seemed to enhance the fun. But I always like the action-packed “Mission” films, and try to see them in Imax.

This happy moviegoing experience also was tied to the crowd. The theater was nearly empty for the mid-week “Ant-Man” showing, but full for the “Mission” screening on the Friday night the latter film opened in theaters. Though I had seen several people bring beer into the auditorium, there was no rowdiness. Patrons were so quietly engrossed in the film that when my companion gasped – after an important item slipped from Tom Cruise’s grip on screen – people turned to see what the commotion was.

This evening represented the peak of the communal film-going experience, usually achieved when the house is full, the screen is big, and there are few distractions. This experience stood in contrast to one I had at Studio Movie Grill, where the selection of food and drink is vast but the screen small and the entries and exits of the wait staff noticeable despite workers’ efforts to be unobtrusive.

Dine-in theaters combine my two favorite activities, so I will keep tabs on this trend, always with functionality in mind. If new food and drink options support the moviegoing experience, great. Otherwise, what’s the point? Better to skip the film and head for a good restaurant, where the food will cost the same and no 3-D glasses are required.