The Alamo Drafthouse Takes Dinner and a Movie to a New Level
It was as if Joaquin Phoenix and I were on a date. We gazed into each other's eyes. I took a sip of wine. He chuckled lovingly. I took a bite of my oversize burger, the thin, almost fast-food-style patty bringing back memories of high school dates at Whataburger. He told me about his failed marriage and how he longs to be in love again. I sighed and started to tell him about my life, but I got shushed by the person sitting next to me. Apparently he and Joaquin were having a moment as well, only theirs was over nachos and a martini instead of wine and a burger.
This is dinner and a movie — simultaneously instead of one after the other — at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where conversations happen silently between you and the person on screen rather than the person next to you. There's a no-talking rule, of course, because you're in a theater, but that doesn't detract from the dining experience. Somehow, eating in the dark with only the glow of a screen illuminating your plate is a very intimate experience.
When you eat in a theater, you no longer eat with your eyes. They're otherwise occupied. You no longer dissect your meal verbally with the person next to you, commenting that there's some acid missing here or too much salt there. You no longer take photos of your food and send them off into cyberspace for the rest of the world to see and crave. You do what you're meant to do with food, what we often forget to do in this age of constant criticism and technology. You eat.
I honestly couldn't tell you if my pizza at Alamo Drafthouse was visually attractive. At times, when the screen went white for a moment, I could make out the vaguely pink outline of sliced prosciutto, the dark-green wilted crescents of spinach tucked beneath a thin layer of sour pecorino and stretchy mozzarella. I could see the oily glint of the slightly charred crust flicker before me for a moment before the room went dark again and my meal became vague outlines of gray once more.
What I can tell you, though, is that the pizza — in fact everything I ate at Alamo Drafthouse — is surprisingly good. I was excited to learn that much of what comes out of the Alamo Drafthouse kitchen is made from scratch. The pizza dough doesn't come pre-kneaded from a Sysco freezer truck. It's prepared on-site, as is the creamy white sauce that serves as a base for about half the pizzas on the menu (the other half employ a zingy red tomato sauce). The mozzarella and pecorino are grated fresh for each pizza order, and nothing topping the pies tastes canned or frozen, from the portobello and oyster mushrooms on one pizza to the brussels sprouts and goat cheese on another.
The only thing that could improve upon the Drafthouse pizzas is a wood-burning oven. But really, we're still talking about a movie theater here. I'm impressed there is pizza at all.
Get a behind the scenes look at what goes on at the kitchen of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in our slideshow "A Closer Look at The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema."
When I think of movie food, I picture bright-yellow popcorn so salty it makes your mouth dry out and $5 boxes of Milk Duds or Sour Patch Kids. I remember sipping Coke ICEEs while huddling next to a boyfriend during a scary movie. It seems that as I've matured, though, movie food has as well.
Alamo Drafthouse was founded in Austin in 1997 with two primary tenets: No talking would be allowed during films, and good food and beer would be served. Perhaps because it started as such a small operation — one screen in an old parking garage and specialty meals made to pair with specific films — the Drafthouse has managed to maintain a high standard of cuisine, even though the chain now operates more than a dozen theaters in six states.
Of course, the concept of a dinner theater isn't new. As long as there have been stages, there have been people eating while they watch performances, but the specific style of Alamo Drafthouse is so successful that it's been emulated by other theaters around the country. So, too, has the steadfast rule stipulating that if you talk or text during the film, you'll be kicked out of the theater. But for me, being cut off from sharing my thoughts digitally makes a meal more enjoyable.
When you sit down behind one of the long tables that line every row (preferably before the lights go out), you take a look at the menu and write down your selections on paper stored in a cubbyhole. Then, at any point before or during the film, a server will come by, crouching and walking softly, retrieve your order, give it a once-over in the dim light of the screen and head back to the kitchen to get things cooking. It's an amusing spectacle, these servers scurrying about, trying as diligently as possible not to interrupt the moviegoing experience. They won't even talk to you unless they have a question about your order — a welcome relief from those pesky waiters who want to be immediate friends in so many restaurants.
The servers stop taking orders and bring you your check 30 minutes before the film ends, but if you're still hungry by then, you're doing it wrong. The menu features just about anything one might crave at a movie — save for truly ethnic items like curry, stir-fry, garlicky pasta, etc. Stylistically, it resembles the type of food one might find at Chili's, but flavor-wise, it's far better, from the salads to the freshly baked cookies that arrive at your table still too hot to eat.
The cookies (chocolate chip, double chocolate and peanut butter) are made in the kitchen at the theater. Dessert options are limited to cookies, ice cream, movie candy (still in those cardboard boxes and still overpriced) and milkshakes made even better by the addition of a little somethin' somethin'. The Mexican chocolate shake is the ideal end to a movie dinner, spiked with a bit of reposado tequila and laced with cinnamon for that slightly spicy abuelita chocolate taste.
If sitting for two hours and eating heavy food sounds like a recipe for a stomachache, don't let a movie theater salad scare you; Alamo Drafthouse's lighter options are the way to go. An $11 chopped salad made me fall in love with a simple vegetarian dish — devoid of truffle oil or pork belly or unnecessary fruit and nuts — all over again. Too frequently I'm put off by overly complicated mixtures, but the chopped salad here is an ideal blend of arugula, radicchio, and red and green leaf lettuce, with just a hint of basil pesto balsamic dressing. The roasted red peppers and Kalamata olives add vinegary acid to the mix, while marble-size balls of fresh mozzarella provide a cool surprise every few bites.
Veggie burger patties, available in place of any regular burger on the menu, are juicy and flavorful enough that most wouldn't miss the beef, and a basil pesto frittata off the brunch menu (which is offered "all day, every day") is perfect for an afternoon screening.
I did take issue with the nachos, though, which had too much chip for the amount of beans and cheese melted on top. In the center of each fried tortilla strip was a small dollop of spiced black beans with a few shreds of melted cheddar. That's it. The plate comes with sour cream on the side, as well as a tomato cut into fourths and half an avocado, not sliced, just plopped on the plate. It's dark in there, Alamo Drafthouse. Don't make us cut anything. It could end poorly.
The Hatch green chile queso blanco also has the potential to end poorly if you don't gobble it up immediately. It's available as a bowl of queso or on top of fries or a burger, but in each instance it congeals too quickly, somehow making everything in its presence simultaneously hard and soggy.
The Drafthouse redeemed itself in my eyes pretty soon after the dangerous nachos and questionable queso, however, with its burgers. During my time in Houston, I've become something of a burger snob, desiring freshly ground chuck and homemade toasted buns gently cradling a perfectly seared patty. I wasn't expecting much from the Drafthouse burgers, but the toppings sounded good.
And then I bit into the mushroom and white Cheddar burger, and my mind rushed back to all the fast-food burgers of my youth. There was the thin patty, maybe a little too charred on the outside but not quite overcooked, and the basic bun, buttery but clearly not from an artisan baker as so many are these days. And yet, there was a dimensionality to this burger not found in even my guiltiest fast-food pleasures. The melted white Cheddar was tart and smooth, the sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions simultaneously sweet and earthy. And right when I was about to do that thing that all food critics do — look for something, anything, wrong with the burger — I found the spicy spread of Dijon mustard hidden in the center of the patty, just what the burger had been missing, and I chided myself for trying to find fault with the dish.
I find the moviegoing experience to be very nostalgic. I don't go out to see movies much anymore. I'm too busy, and there's Netflix, and who can stand to sit still for two or more hours, bereft of technology? Seeing a film in the theater reminds me of middle school and high school, when my parents would drop me off outside Tinseltown to meet friends for a night of overpriced sugary treats, arcade games and, no doubt, terrible movies. I miss the innocence of that routine.
But an evening at Alamo Drafthouse brings it all back to me. For a brief moment in time, I can't talk to anyone. I can't text or check my email to see if I'm missing something important. I can't worry about the future because, safe in my cushioned chair in the dark, I can't do anything about it anyway. And besides, I'm off in another world, chatting with Joaquin or battling demons or watching a couple fall in love.
The food plays a big part in the nostalgia, because away from Instagram and the ability to verbally dissect the ins and outs of a dish while I'm eating, food becomes blissfully thoughtless again. A burger is just a burger — albeit a very good one. A pizza tastes like what my mom and I used to make at home, nothing fancy but with quality ingredients. A salad is divine in its simplicity.
And that ubiquitous movie popcorn? Still there. Still an unnatural shade of yellow. Still so aggressively salty it'll have you grabbing your drink at all too frequent intervals.
Only now that we're older, that drink is a cocktail, delivered right to your table in the middle of a film, artfully prepared with craft gin and a touch of Lillet. Shaken, not stirred.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.