Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Kaitlin Steinberg