iPic’s Venture Into High-End Dining Offers Hits, Misses and Plush Surroundings

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When Alamo Drafthouse opened its initial theater in May 2003 near West Oaks Mall, it was the first venue where Houstonians could enjoy a full meal served right to their seats while they were watching a movie. It’s now closed, but there are locations in Katy on Mason Road and in Houston on Vintage Park, and there will soon be another, in Sugar Land.

Now, iPic Theaters’ first Houston location, in the blingy River Oaks District shopping center, is trying to take that experience up a notch (with prices raised accordingly), serving a menu designed by James Beard award-winning chef Sherry Yard and other famous chefs.

To be sure, there are hits to be found. Take, for example, chef Jet Tila’s spicy tuna on crispy rice, in which coarsely chopped, sushi-grade tuna is seasoned with spicy mayonnaise and laid on top of deep-fried, golden-brown rectangles of crispy sushi rice seasoned with a bit of rice vinegar. The tuna topping is beautifully garnished with masago (smelt roe) and sprigs of daikon sprouts. Underneath on the plate are thick swirls of sweet unagi sauce. A pile of pickled ginger, a lump of wasabi and a dish of soy sauce come alongside. Unfortunately, what didn’t come with the dish was chopsticks or any other utensils, so there wasn’t a good way to actually apply the wasabi.
There’s a big difference between eating a meal prepared by an award-winning chef and eating a meal designed by one. iPic serves good, interesting food that’s admittedly ambitious for a movie theater, but it’s not always comparable to eating at some of Houston’s finer restaurants. It is, however, almost as expensive. The spicy tuna on crispy rice costs $16. It’s not unlikely at all that two diners who order four dishes and two alcoholic beverages will rack up a tab of $100 after taxes and tip.

Part of the price, though, is for the fun and luxury of sitting in a plushy chair and having good food brought to you while you’re watching a movie. The “cheap seats” are upholstered in cream leather and have a built-in cup holder. A ticket costs $16 and there is no food or beverage service, although moviegoers are welcome to grab food and drinks from the pub-like dining area called The Tuck Room and bring it in with them.

The big draw at iPic, though, is the VIP seating, which costs an extra $12. (That comes to a grand total of $28 for a movie ticket — but it is very swanky.) Servers take care of the VIP guests, and there’s a call button in case something else is needed during the film. The orange, leather-upholstered reclining seats are nestled in pairs and separated by a small table that rotates to allow guests to get in and out of their seats easily. A sound-dampening “pod” surrounds the back and sides of the chairs, which allows for semi-private conversation and helps hide the light from a reviewer’s iPhone as she desperately waits for a brightly lit scene to take a sad, grainy photo of her food.
The seats have electronic push-button controls and there’s a flip-down cup holder installed in the semicircular cubby next to each chair. Each is accessorized with a small pillow and soft blanket. The only thing that seems to have been overlooked is that there’s no good place to put a purse or briefcase, except on the floor under the table where it can block or get caught under the recliners when they’re raised or lowered.

It’s one thing to nosh on popcorn, pizzas and hot wings in a dark movie theater. Dining on beautifully plated dishes, though, like the spicy tuna on crispy rice, means the extra effort and garnishes cannot be properly appreciated. (Alamo Drafthouse at least has dim amber lights under the tables that allow diners to see the menu or glance at their food.) For more ambitious fare, it’s better to arrive early and dine in the central, open dining area called The Tuck Room. There, details can be appreciated, such as the beautiful selection of delicately battered and fried seafood in the fritto misto. It would be a loss not to be able to see the fresh shrimp, the fried baby octopus scattered here and there, the papery slices of thinly sliced zucchini and yellow squash, and the commingling of fresh, deep red, sweet-hot pepper slices. Thick, lemony aioli is served alongside, and just a dab on each crispy-fried hunk of seafood is sufficient.
Florida-based interior designer Karen Hanlon obviously put a great deal of thought into the furniture arrangement in The Tuck Room. There’s appropriate seating for everyone from singles to larger groups. The long, central bar area is ideal for singles, couples or casual dining. In the center are plush booths that can seat up to four people. Angled just behind the information desk are long tables for groups. Comfortable, upholstered chairs and low tables are great for those who just want to chat and sip cocktails. The cocktails, by the way, tend to have too much agave syrup — even the mezcal margaritas and strong-sounding bottled cocktails such as Smoking In Bed. The latter, a bottled cocktail for two, is described as “smoke, whiskey, agave,” but is far too sweet to live up to the daring implications of its name.

The in-theater dining menu differs slightly from The Tuck Room’s, and attempting to order something only on one menu or the other can thwart the server. It seemed like it would be trivial to get the mezcal margarita on the bar cocktail menu during the movie instead of a tequila one, but servers at iPic must be trained on a “need-to-know” basis only. The poor guy visited our seats two more times to ask again for the name of the spirit we wanted. On a different visit, this time to The Tuck Room, we asked our server what the Oasis pale ale was like. She said she’d ask the bartender, and returned to say it was a light beer. That wasn’t much help. So, for minimum discomfort, stick with ordering strictly from the menu that’s presented.

The most expensive item on the in-theater menu, the filet trio sliders at $20, proved one of the most disappointing. The buns were doughy, as if they’d not been baked all the way through. As for the meat, our companion said, “This meat is way too tough to be fillet.” It was, in fact, fillet, but it hadn’t been cooked properly. It wasn’t hot and juicy, nor was the meat seared or seasoned.

It’s a good idea when ordering to ask the server to describe the dish. More than once, the item wasn’t what the menu implied. The assumption was that “buttermilk fried chicken” would be whole, bone-in pieces. Instead, they were boneless tenders. That said, they arrived piping hot, juicy and enrobed in spicy, crisp coating. Alongside was a dish of bacon-infused maple syrup. The tenders seemed especially suitable for movie munching.

When the trailers are about to start, servers provide moviegoers with individual bags of popcorn for free, which is a nice touch. There’s no butter, though, and when we asked about options, the beer cheese popcorn sounded intriguing. What wasn’t said was that it’s not made in-house and comes in a small, sealed plastic pouch. For $6, that’s not a value. For other typical theater food items, standard theater prices are in effect. M&Ms, served in a glass, are $4, and soda is $5.

Is iPic Theaters the perfect mesh of plush movie theater and fine restaurant? Not quite. Regardless, it’s a wonderful upscale addition to Houston best reserved for those times when moviegoers want to feel pampered during their flick. If the goal is simply to dine on fine fare, iPic’s wavering between hits and misses may leave diners disappointed.

iPic Theaters
4444 Westheimer, 832-709-2146. Hours: The Tuck Room — 11 a.m to 11 p.m. daily. Movie times will differ.

Beer cheese popcorn (pre-packaged) $6
Buttermilk fried chicken $14
Fritto misto $15
Spicy tuna on crispy rice $16
Filet trio sliders $20
Diet Coke $5
Vida mezcal margarita $12
Smoking In Bed cocktail (for two) $21

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