During the opening credits, Joey Berner delivers a 
    chicken pesto sandwich to David Atkinson.
During the opening credits, Joey Berner delivers a chicken pesto sandwich to David Atkinson.
Troy Fields

Eat, Drink, Watch Movie

There are a lot of menu items with corny movie names at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, the multiscreen movie theater in West Oaks Mall where you can eat dinner while you catch a flick. The pepperoni pizza is called a "Porky's," and there's a sundae called "La Dolce Vita." We're here to see Big Fish, so we try to follow the Dinner and a Movie logic by ordering something with a piscatorial theme. But there isn't any fish on the menu, not even a tuna sandwich.

The movie is directed by Tim Burton, which means it's bound to be a cartoon of one sort or another. So we look for items on the menu that sound cartoonish. We opt for burgers in honor of Popeye's buddy Wimpy.

There's a skinny table in front of our theater seats with a menu, some pieces of paper and a pencil. We write down our selections and fix them on a little clip. This helps the waiter pick up our order with a minimum of noise.


Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

1000 West Oaks Mall (Westheimer at Highway 6), 281-556-0204. Open daily; check

Alamo burger: $7.25
Spicy bleu burger: $7.25
Chicken pesto sandwich: $7
"Godfather" pizza: $7.25
"Chocolat" cake: $3.95

My dining companion gets the Alamo burger, featuring a half-pound patty with romaine, tomato, onions, cheddar, bacon and chipotle mayo layered on surprisingly crusty bread that tastes like a cross between a hamburger bun and a hard roll. A kosher pickle spear and a large basket of skinny french fries are served on the side. It's an excellent burger.

I get a "spicy bleu burger," which turns out to be a poor choice. The well-done half-pound patty is palatable enough. But the combination of blue cheese and buffalo-wing sauce doesn't taste as good on a lettuce- and tomato-bedecked burger as it does on a chicken wing. The sauce is very sweet and very spicy, and it overwhelms everything else.

I have a couple of Pilsner Urquells to cool my mouth off. The three guys who sit down at the skinny table beside us order a bucket of beers. A lot of distracting bottle clanking and ice bucket racket starts emanating from their area after awhile. And they start laughing a lot louder, too.

As the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema name would suggest, the availability of beer and wine is central to the allure of this concept. The food is pretty decent too, considering you're in a multiplex. But before you decide to come here, you should know that eating at the movies has some drawbacks. Obvious problems include not being able to see what you're eating in the dark, and people walking around all over the place. At first, I thought the service would be cut off as soon as the movie started, but in fact, it continues through the show.

So we take advantage by ordering dessert. I get the "Chocolat" cake, a rich, moist devil's-food layer cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. My companion has a root beer float with vanilla ice cream. And she quickly devours it after giving me only one tiny slurp.

Although the waitstaff wear black and walk bent over so they don't obstruct your view very much, they are a distraction. Even worse, so they can see their way around, the houselights are never entirely shut off. As a result, you aren't really sitting in a darkened theater, and the atmosphere ends up being a little like a sports bar. Everybody is watching the same big screen (and the same Big Fish), but there are lots of other things going on.

Would I recommend the place? Well, it all depends on the movie.

This is a different kind of cinematic experience. Instead of picking your movie based on reviews, stars, directors or genre, you have to rate it according to appetite appeal. Who wants to be in the middle of a Philly cheese steak when a gory spectacle like the firefight in Saving Private Ryan or an ax-and-knife fight in Gangs of New York suddenly fills the screen? And drinking beer while watching Schindler's List would seem somehow disrespectful.

But, on the other hand, the Alamo Drafthouse is the perfect place to see another sort of movie. At the original location on Colorado Street in Austin, they do a lot of food and movie theme nights. The concept works best when you're dining on Italian food and watching Big Night, or feasting on Mexican food while watching Like Water for Chocolate. Lighthearted stuff like action movies goes pretty well with a burger and a beer as well.

The first time I visited the Alamo Drafthouse in West Oaks Mall was last summer. We saw The Italian Job. You may remember it as the clever heist picture in which the newly introduced Cooper Mini played a leading role. It was also an excellent dining choice. There was enough Italian food on the menu to stick entirely to the theme.

We started with a "Godfather" pizza topped with pepperoni, green peppers, mushrooms, onion, fresh basil, tomato and black olives. They don't have a pizza oven here, so this is really little more than a toaster oven-type pizza. But given the "hey, it's a movie theater" handicap, the pizzas aren't that bad. You just have to eat them fast while they're still marginally crisp.

My dining companion was happy with her chicken pesto sandwich. It's a juicy grilled chicken breast served on the same crusty roll as the burgers and dressed with tomatoes, olives, provolone and a well-made basil pesto. I took a couple of bites and was very impressed.

I had a pleasant glass of Chianti with my pizza. (Sorry, Silence of the Lambs fans, no fava beans.) My date had a glass of the Francis Ford Coppola Claret. As you might expect, the wine list features a lot of Coppola's products. It's an impressive list (for a movie theater), with 18 wines, 12 available by the glass. For special occasions, there's Veuve Clicquot Orange Label.

I can't quite conceive of an occasion that would make me want to drink good Champagne at the movies. But it's nice to know it's there. As for the food, the chicken pesto sandwich and the Alamo burger are the two best things I've tried on the menu. But looking around the theater, I'd say that snacks like popcorn, chips and salsa, buffalo wings and baskets of fries are the most popular items. And if you get your order in before the show starts, you'll barely notice the waiters.

You can cut down on the distraction problem even more if you don't mind sitting closer to the screen. Up there, you barely notice the people moving around. By the same token, if you want to eat dinner and be polite, sit in the back of the theater where your waiter won't bother anyone. That's where you'll find me, eating a three-course meal and watching Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. See showtimes.


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