Carla Meyer

Is this dinner-and-a-movie theater the best in the Sacramento region?

Spinach artichoke dip, popcorn and 21st Amendment Brewery's Brew Free or Die IPA at the Palladio Luxe theater in Folsom on Tuesday.
Spinach artichoke dip, popcorn and 21st Amendment Brewery's Brew Free or Die IPA at the Palladio Luxe theater in Folsom on Tuesday. rbenton@sacbee.com

If the swank, 4-month-old Palladio LUXE Cinema in Folsom had to narrow the target audience for its in-theater dining service to just one highly receptive patron, it would be me.

My present as a restaurant critic and past as a film critic qualify me uniquely to assess movie theaters that serve meals. I say this not with arrogance but because I spent years trying to scare up a decent dinner to accompany evening screenings.

I know all about hot dogs that somehow remain cold in the middle despite all that time on rollers. And about salt hangovers that follow dinners centered on faux-cheese nachos. And the mess and guilt that can result from sneaking a burrito into the theater in one’s purse.

Given this history, the Palladio LUXE – sister theater to the popular Palladio 16 Cinemas in the same shopping complex – did not exactly have a mountain to climb to wow me. All it needed to do was serve food that did not involve rollers, a microwave, or plastic covers that needed to be peeled back.

But the LUXE goes above and beyond, starting with a wood-paneled lobby that looks like it is attached to a four-star hotel instead of a movie theater. The lobby holds its own bar, with leather bar stools, and other lamp-lit seating areas with plush sofas and chairs.

The LUXE’s six intimate auditoriums average 50 seats apiece. Those seats are leather electric recliners outfitted with wooden trays to hold food and drink, and buttons with which one can adjust the seat or summon servers. The screen runs wall to wall, and the Dolby surround sound is noticeably crisper than sound at some other local theaters.

After 5 p.m., the LUXE restricts its audience to ages 21 and older. Perhaps partly for this reason – or because there is plentiful room between seats and rows – I never, on three visits, noticed chatter from fellow patrons.

It’s hard to think of more favorable circumstances under which to try movie-theater cuisine. And although there were issues with some dishes, the LUXE’s food – which runs from sandwiches and flatbreads and similarly easy-to-handle-in-the-dark finger foods to pastas requiring utensils – was surprisingly flavorful and fresh for movie-theater fare. It also surpassed the quality of the food at Rocklin’s Studio Movie Grill, which beat the LUXE by two years in becoming the region’s first dine-in multiplex.

Though Studio Movie Grill is highly inviting, the LUXE beats it on nearly every level, from food to setting to seating, which in some instances at Studio Movie Grill involves office-like chairs. Studio Movie Grill is a nice Subaru; the LUXE is a Cadillac.

The LUXE has its own in-house kitchen and chef, Aldren Tauro. But I am not judging its food by restaurant standards. Circumstances are too different. Restaurant servers do not carry plates down long hallways and up aisles of dark theaters, introducing variables in temperatures and presentation.

Comparing the LUXE to restaurants also does not work because restaurants force you to leave them, get back in your car, and find parking – again – if you want to see a film the same night. So the convenience of eating and viewing in the same spot counts for a lot at the LUXE.

But freshness counts most. It was evident in nearly every menu item we tasted, starting with popcorn so light and perfectly salted and buttered that it poses a real threat to the Esquire Imax’s popcorn’s long-standing status as best in the region.

Tortilla chips served with the LUXE’s spinach-artichoke dip were thick, crunchy and tasted freshly fried. The delightfully fatty dip combines cream cheese and sour cream, because just one of those things is not enough.

The juiciness of the LUXE’s popcorn chicken came as a shock to a movie-going palate trained on rubbery chicken tenders. The shredded chicken inside the Buffalo spring rolls also was moist, and its flavors enhanced by Buffalo sauce, mozzarella and cilantro. A drizzle of Sriracha atop the rolls added extra oomph. The bleu-cheese dip served on the side was tangy but not overly pungent, as was the coating on the bacon-bleu cheese fries we ordered with the excellent salmon BLT.

The salmon was cooked perfectly, lent salty punch by strips of crispy bacon, and housed inside firm yet airy focaccia. But too-spongy bread lessened the pleasures of the nice ham and turkey inside the LUXE’s Cristo sandwich.

Other items were half-successful. Though the Niman Ranch beef within the LUXE’s brioche burger tasted high-quality, it was under-salted. The margherita flatbread carried plenty of tomato spark, but on a bread base lacking in crunch. The shrimp and vodka penne arrived in a hearty portion, but with its minced garlic noticeably undercooked.

There were a few unmitigated duds, like the tired-tasting calamari appetizer and two cocktails – the Spicy Manhattan and White Linen – that tasted as if they came from a pre-packaged mix.

The LUXE experience can be pricey. Tickets most days run $15, or $12.25 for seniors – nearly $5 more than at the Palladio 16. So you are paying extra for atmosphere and convenience before you ever take a drink or bite. But although prices for traditional movie concessions items seem to carry the usual crazy markup ($7 popcorn, $5 Coke), prices for other items are less inflated.

Alcoholic drinks and sandwiches run about $1-$2 more than they typically do at local restaurants. The salmon BLT was $17 including an upgraded bacon-bleu fries side, and the burger $15 with a garlic-fries upgrade. Not cheap, but not $4 Junior Mints, either.

Servers do a good job of taking orders and delivering food while also being as unobtrusive as possible. Most order-taking and food delivery occurs during previews, with the lights on in the auditorium. Though I prefer watching trailers in the dark, convenience sometimes entails tradeoffs. And it became really dark soon enough – so dark that I had to feel and taste my way through some dishes, because they arrived after the movie started, and I could not see what I was eating. But I preferred this odd sensory experience to always being able to see my food at the sometimes overly lit Studio Movie Grill.

Though this region was slow to adopt the dinner-with-a-movie trend, it is catching up. Cinema West, the Petaluma theater chain behind both Palladio cineplexes, is in the home stretch of its years-long effort to convert Woodland’s historic State Theatre into a multiplex with an in-house cafe, and has a similar concept in the works at Sacramento’s Country Club Plaza.

That I enjoyed all three visits to the LUXE despite not liking any of the films I saw testifies to the quality of the movie-going experience there.

Late winter is always a fallow time for film apart from the Oscar crop, and I had seen all those awards holdovers when I made my visits to the LUXE. So I watched “Table 19,” an airless, pratfall-laden comedy whose budget looked like the equivalent of the bill for my dinner that night; “United Kingdom,” which tells a fascinating true story in a frustratingly trite manner, and “Fifty Shades Darker,” a cinematic abomination.

“Darker” made me cringe for its star, Dakota Johnson, her mother, Melanie Griffith and Griffith’s mother, Tippi Hedren, and for Johnson’s father, Don, and his ancestors. But it did not make me regret coming to the LUXE. The seats still reclined, and the beer and soda still were cold. I also had a pleasant pre-movie time sitting at the bar alongside people who had come in only to eat dinner (the bar/lobby area is accessible without a movie ticket).

I look forward to seeing a good movie at the LUXE, since I suspect that enjoying both ends of the dinner-and-a-movie concept will make for an even sweeter experience.

Palladio LUXE Cinema

400 Palladio Parkway, Folsom. 916-693-6433, www.cinemawest.com

Hours: Show times generally start at around 11 and end at around 10 p.m.

Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Eight beers on draft. White and red wines on tap.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: A few.

Ambiance: The LUXE holds the poshest theater lobby in the region, with floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and a nicely outfitted bar area. Auditoriums feature wall-to-wall screens, Dolby surround sound and electric recliners with wooden trays. On our visits, all of which were in the evenings, when the crowd is 21-and-older, we did not hear chatter from fellow audience members.

Overall

Ambiance counts for a lot here. The place is exceptionally nice, the picture and sound quality in the auditoriums stellar. The food was better than at Rocklin’s Studio Movie Grill – the region’s other dine-in multiplex – and as good as at the best dine-in movie theater in Northern California – San Francisco’s New Mission Theater.

Food

The freshness level was striking compared with food at more traditional theaters. The salmon BLT, Buffalo spring rolls and popcorn chicken would impress even in a regular restaurant. The calamari appetizer, and the Spicy Manhattan and White Linen cocktails were misses.

Service

Highly efficient, apart from one instance in which we had to ring three times for service when we wanted to order another dish after the film started. We also did not know we could ring the bell to have dishes removed after we were finished, until we spoke to management after our visits. Live and learn.

Value

Value here is tied almost entirely to convenience factor. For some people, it is worth it to spend $5 more for a movie ticket, or $2 more for a beer or cocktail, to receive in-seat service in a classy setting. For others, it is not.

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