Dinner and a Movie

Dinner and a movie is a concept so firmly ingrained in our collective psyche that it has become the classic American date.

The notion of sharing a dinner at one dimly lit location and then a film at another has even been tacitly supported by the theater chains, which for the longest time offered only snacks and dime-store desserts (often at four-star prices).

But America has changed, and the theaters right along with it. To answer our demands for speed and convenience, not to mention constant stimulation, two new theaters are poised to add menus to their multiplexes in an attempt to feed the masses before (or after) their movies. And why not? If Americans don't have time to shop, as the rise in e-commerce would indicate, then why should they suddenly have time for both a leisurely meal and a movie?

"This type of concept has never been done before in Houston -- with theater and restaurant retail offering a one-stop shop in the box," says Brian Hines of TPMC Realty, whose "box" is the new Edwards Grand Palace Stadium 24 Cinemas [3839 Weslayan, (713)871-8880], which houses not only 24 screens but also a multilevel parking garage and 31,000 square feet of retail space. "Now, you can grab a bite and go see a movie under one roof."

Hines may have a gift for categorical statements, but his memory is a little less fine-tuned. He overlooks, conveniently or not, the Angelika Film Center and Cafe, which features an ultrahip restaurant, and the Cinemark, which leases nooks to pizza and coffee bars. He's also ignoring the Loews chain, which attempts -- but often fails -- to offer restaurant-quality entrées such as popcorn shrimp and quesadillas from its concession stand.

And for now, at least, Hines's big talk is exactly that. He admits that no restaurant leases have actually been signed yet, though he says there's "a whole host of interest, with everything from a pizza/pasta place to a sushi bar about ready to pull the trigger."

Hines better hurry up. His vision of mixing food and film is already being gobbled up by a nearby strip mall, the Centre at Greenway, on Richmond at Weslayan. Tenants, including eight new places to buy food, drink and ice cream, recently started grabbing spaces in the strip center, which for years has seen unremarkable leasing activity.

The new flurry of interest in the Centre at Greenway is no doubt due in part to the dramatic renovations done by Greenberg & Company, which a year ago bought the struggling 20,000-square-foot center and some adjacent buildings. Greenberg promptly tore down some of the nearby buildings and doubled the size of the center, transforming it into a sleek $12 million, 40,000-square-foot space that's now fully occupied.

But renovations alone do not explain the drastic turnaround. David Greenberg of Greenberg & Company downplays the center's proximity to the Edwards multiplex and prefers to pin its success on Greenway Plaza's 11 million square feet of office space and 35,000 employees. Some tenants also point to the surrounding upscale neighborhoods and Compaq Center.

Yet there's no denying the impact of all those new nightcrawlers pulling into the Edwards cinema.

"We wanted to be by either restaurants, a bookstore or a movie theater that would bring people in at all hours," says Jesse Brown of Stucchi's, Rudy Tomjanovich's ice cream shop, part of a Michigan-based chain, which is expected to open this month. "We knew the daytime business would be good, but what brings them in at night?"

Darryl Baylor of Jay's Seafood & Steak, which also plans a December opening, says the theater played a big part in his decision to lease in the center. "We knew we could get the people who work in Greenway, but at night, the theater will draw a lot," he says.

Stucchi's and Jay's will be joining old standbys, Collina's and the Kolache Shoppe, as well as strip center newcomers, Atomic Burrito, Planet Smoothie and Quizno's. Doc Java, a coffee bar, plans a December opening, while Tropical Chicken, a walk-up cafe for rotisserie chicken, and another Steak-Out location will open their doors in early 2000. They're all just steps away from the theater's garage. Some tenants are even planning signage and back entrances that face the parking structure, further evidence of the Grand Palace's eminence.

The benevolence of the Edwards chain will continue later this month when it opens its massive new Edwards Houston Marq-E 22, on Silber Road just off the Katy Freeway. The theater is the anchor tenant of a huge retail complex where several restaurants have already signed on, including longtime Inner Looper Cafe Adobe, which will open a third location in early 2000. Also planning January or February openings at the Marq-E are Yeung's Lotus Express, a Japanese restaurant, and Surfer's Paradise, a Hawaiian-themed eatery, complete with indoor waterfalls and palm trees. Another Jillian's, even bigger than the 68,000-square-foot venue at Katy Mills, will open at the MarqE next summer.

The question now is, will these restaurants find an audience beyond the pizza-and-Pokémon crowd? An early look at the disappointing sales at Edwards Grand Palace may cause some to doubt it. Even Hines says the theater is just now getting the numbers he had hoped for when it opened in October.

Perhaps there is hope for America's overscheduled masses. The apparent lack of retail interest in Edwards's Weslayan complex, juxtaposed with the success of the Centre at Greenway, would seem to indicate that Americans are not yet ready to select convenience over ambience. -- Melanie Knight

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