Movie theaters still have a place for those who don't want or can't afford to build a media screening room in their homes but still enjoy the spectacle of seeing a truly great movie on the big screen. (Torrents are only good for so many things...)
Increasingly, however, theaters have had to figure out how to compete with your own living room. This means larger, more comfortable seats as well as a growing market for movie theaters like Alamo Drafthouse and Sundance Cinemas that offer you the opportunity to have dinner and a movie at the same time.
Sundance Cinemas has offered surprisingly good food since opening in downtown Houston's Bayou Place development in late 2011, but the steak quesadilla and Pinot Noir I enjoyed along with a screening of Argo over the weekend wouldn't have been enough to woo me if the price weren't right, too.
Traditional movie theaters have offered popcorn since the Great Depression, when the attractive price of 5 cents a bag meant that moviegoers didn't have to choose between a flick and a snack. These days, concessions account for roughly 40 percent of a movie theater's average revenue. Offering more attractive dining options means that more money will stay in the theater itself instead of going to a restaurant next door and can even cut down on the number of people sneaking their own snacks into the movie.
I am probably more guilty of sneaking in food than anyone else I know. But that's because concessions at movie theaters are a racket; soda and candy at the concession stand typically cost three to four times more than at a typical convenience store. Not only do I have little to no interest in a days-old hot dog on a mealy bun, I have zero interest in paying $10 for it. The Detroit man who sued an AMC theater for supposedly violating the Michigan Consumer Protection Act last year is apparently in the same camp.
Sundance Cinemas doesn't have the vast selection of pizzas, burgers, salads and more that Alamo Drafthouse does -- nor does it have the excellent beer selection -- but it packs a lot into its compact menu, including some terrific local draft beer options and creative cocktails. And unlike Alamo Drafthouse, the concession stand at Sundance stocks a wide variety of other local goodies: cookies, brownies and lemon bars from Michael's Cookie Jar, ice cream from Cloud 10 Creamery, healthy popsicles from GoodPop in Austin.
The fast-casual counter service offered at Sundance also makes for a good meeting spot before your movie starts. Grab a glass of wine with a friend and catch up. Or if you're no good at eating in the dark (I'm not, unless it involves a funnel and/or straw), split a pizza in Sundance's handy cafe beforehand. And as the cafe seeks to remind visitors, you don't need a movie ticket to visit. The full bar and full food menu are available for all. (And a friend assures me that Sundance's version of a White Russian is among the best in town.)
As stated earlier, however, all of these points would be moot were the food overpriced. It is refreshingly and emphatically not, however. A "Whole Hog" pizza covered with three kinds of meat -- and, of course, bacon -- for $10.75 is enough to feed two people. Ditto the steak and mushroom quesadilla I ordered for $8.50. And the $8 pour of nicely chilled (so rare, even in nice restaurants!) Pinot Noir I received was sufficient for two glasses.
In fact, the only overpriced menu item I spotted this past Sunday evening was a bizarre offer for a Texas Independence Day special: chips and salsa plus two pints of Buffalo Bayou 1836 for $18.36. Clever price aside, I noted that all three menu items were $6 individually -- so you'd actually end up paying 36 cents extra for the privilege of celebrating the day the short-lived Republic of Texas liberated itself from Mexico with some...salsa.
My friend and I ended up paying the exact same amount for food and booze that we would have paid at a restaurant, with the added bonus of being able to leisurely walk into the cinema afterward with glasses of wine and beer still in hand. And although the tickets themselves weren't cheap -- $25 for two, after all was said and done -- I don't mind paying for tickets in a quiet, decidedly adult environment. Movie theaters that allow glasses of wine inside tend to have a way of discouraging parents with rowdy children -- and any other rowdy attendees, for that matter.
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To be completely honest, I wouldn't go to the movies anymore at all were it not for places like Sundance and Alamo Drafthouse. Edwards Greenway Plaza -- the closest traditional movie palace to my house -- can keep its sticky floors, captive audience parking scam and overpriced concessions. At Sundance, the floors are always clean, your parking is validated and the beer flows freely and cheaply.
(And by the way, Argo deserved every bit of that Oscar win.)