Don’t you hate it when people give away the juicy parts of a cinematic story – like who died, who fell in love, who rode off into the sunset, who nearly gagged on something called “jalapeño tartar sauce”?
But I hope you’ll forgive me for revealing a few salient details about what we saw at Studio Movie Grill, the hot new dinner-and-a-flick establishment in Rocklin in which food is served as if you’re at a restaurant while you watch a first-run theatrical film on the big screen. It’s an experience that includes comfortable seating, incredible leg room, occasionally attentive servers, beer, wine, cocktails and, well, overcooked pork chops.
Warning: Plot spoiler ahead. There’s an especially unappetizing scene in “Unbroken,” the World War II triumph-of-the-spirit movie directed by Angelia Jolie, whose style behind the camera will never be described as subtle or restrained. American bombardier Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) crash lands in the ocean. During his 47 days in a lifeboat, he catches a bird, and with his two starving companions, eats it raw. Bad idea. They proceed to vomit in unison.
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I was two bites into my “Megaplex” burger when that happened. It’s a $12.50 burger with a decently juicy beef patty that is neither small nor remotely “mega,” with two kinds of cheese, bacon, red onion and an overall ho-hum flavor.
I’m thinking Studio Movie Grill – SMG – should warn viewers about certain movie moments. After all, we’re supposed to be eating while watching new releases in what has to be the cleanest and most spacious movie theater I have ever enjoyed.
For “American Sniper,” a movie I saw on another visit, the warning could go like this: War is ugly and its portrayal in this film is no exception. There will be mortar fire and some people will explode. There will be head shots, and brains will splatter on the wall behind those heads. Also: The movies are extra loud so customers can talk and you can still pick up the dialogue. The theater might be so dark at times you will be unable to see your food. Order wisely.
With “Unbroken,” I soldiered on through that stomach-churning scene. After all, I was there to field-test what could well be a viable, if not completely compelling restaurant concept. But on this particular evening, it only got worse. As a prisoner of war in Japan, Zamperini is hit in the face and beaten with a stick – not once or twice, but dozens of times, until the point is driven home that being a POW really, really sucks.
The food that night stopped short of being a punch in the face. It was more like a slap in the face, both in terms of quality and order-ability. During the course of the evening, I winced. I cringed. I ate popcorn – pre-popped and chewy, rather than light and fluffy and fresh, and with a sugary-sweet note to the butter that made me think “Stevia spillage.”
My companions and I were informed by our friendly server that SMG was out of the coconut chicken tenders I coveted. Then we learned they were out of the half-rack of smoked pork ribs. By the time we heard there was no more mac and cheese, I wanted to have a little “First World” tantrum. But I looked up at the screen and Zamperini was getting hit upside the head with a stick once again. He was fighting to hold on, so I did as well.
I ate part of a cheese pizza with an acceptably tender and fluffy crust that was only marginally better than the frozen pies I remember from my college days. The blackened chicken salad was dry and underwhelming. Like a POW, I began to fantasize that I had escaped and was safe at home – gargling and flossing.
I steadied my nerves with a glass of cabernet sauvignon, aptly named “Freakshow.” It had notes of ripe black cherries and warm plum sauce, with rough tannins that felt like a left hook to the kisser. The finish? Why would I finish it?
That initial dinner-and-movie combo was not a thumbs-up success. The food made the Cheesecake Factory look like the French Laundry. The beer selection was lacking, as if this very contemporary company was unaware that craft beer is a thing.
But the movie experience itself – by that I mean without eating anything on-site – was tremendous. The seating is the best I have ever encountered, so comfortable and spacious I could fully extend my legs and not reach the seat in front of me. The volume in the theater is very loud – like, so loud your waiter can shout at you that they’re out of the mac and cheese, and I can shout, “Bummer!” and no one in the theater even notices.
In theory, the dinner/movie process is easy and seamless. You press a button on the swiveling table attached to your seat. A server comes and takes your order. In no time, the food arrives, except when the server forgets something (like our burger).
When you want something else, simply hit the button and a server will respond. One time, the arrival was almost instantaneous. Another time, it took 30 minutes. There were other issues: When I asked for utensils to go with our meal, and our server promptly returned with one set for our entire party.
If you want to give SMG a go, don’t even think about showing up without reserving a seat. This isn’t like movies back in 2013. This is 2015, and you can buy your tickets online, scan your cellphone in front of a machine at the front door and watch your ticket get printed.
You also can pick your seats beforehand, which is nice. You can saunter in fashionably late and know precisely where you will be sitting. The seating is arranged so that no one blocks your view. But the seats up front are so close to the screen the experience jolts the senses. The movies are $9, comparable to movies at other theaters, and there is no requirement to order anything.
With 2 hours and 17 minutes of “Unbroken” behind us, we returned days later for something even more violent. Apparently, you cannot depict war on film without an upchuck moment. In “American Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood, Sienna Miller pukes not long after meeting Bradley Cooper in a bar. I was two bites into my chicken nachos. I was four bites in when they got married. Eastwood’s pacing is masterful that way.
The SMG pacing? Not quite as skillful. The movie started at 6:25 p.m. We got there at 6:35. We ordered at 6:49. The appetizers arrived five minutes later. Our dinner entrees came to us at 7:25. By then, Cooper was the most prolific sniper in U.S. military history, and someone in the kitchen had made sure our “Loli-Chop Pork Chop” ($14.50) was cooked all the way through. It was inedible. The harshly bitter agave nectar BBQ sauce made sure of that.
The tempura-battered fish and chips were like something you might find in a high school cafeteria – three pieces of mahi-mahi fried in oil that was not hot enough, so the batter became greasy. That jalapeño tartar sauce was unpalatable.
Studio Movie Grill is a chain with 20-plus restaurant/theater properties in Texas, Florida, Arizona and beyond. The idea on paper seems appealing, especially if you’re into multitasking. But the food simply isn’t good enough to become an integral part of the experience.
But I highly recommend seeing movies here. You can reserve your seats, pay in advance, arrive when you like and, best of all, you are under no obligation to order any food.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.
Studio Movie Grill
5140 Commons Drive
Hours: Varies; check show times.
Beverage options: Beer, wine and an assortment of cocktails.
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat.
Gluten-free options: Yes.
Noise level: Volume of the movies is loud.
Ambiance: Theaters are delightfully clean, spacious and comfortable.
Overall ☆1/2 (out of 4 stars)
This attempt at a dining-and-movie concept has potential, but when you make food a focal point of your business, it had better be good. It’s not. Because the theater experience is otherwise very positive, this could really work, but only with an overhaul of the food and beverage component.
If a place like Applebee’s leaves you underwhelmed, the food here is worse, from the clichéd names to the contrived creativity (jalapeño tartar sauce with the fish and chips, agave nectar BBQ sauce with the “Loli-Chop Pork Chop”). Even the popcorn, a movie theater staple, is terrible. The burger and fries are decent. The pork chop was overcooked. The “adult spiked milkshakes” were sweet and tasty but so weak we couldn’t detect any signs of alcohol. Needs significant improvement.
They’re trying. We encountered friendly folks doing their best under trying conditions (taking orders in the dark in the middle of a movie). But we’d prefer to have more technology involved, like a touchscreen to place our order rather than awkward whispering to the servers during the movie.
If you always felt movie theaters were gouging you with the price of popcorn, candy and soft drinks, you may be surprised by how reasonable the prices are. The half-rack of ribs with slaw is $14.95. The pork chop with pork belly mac and cheese is $14.50. Cocktails are $8 to $10. Draft beer is $4.75 to $5.75 for a pint. If the quality of the food improves, the value could be outstanding.