I went out tonight to celebrate a friend's birthday. Rather than the usual lunch outing we decided to go to dinner and see a movie. The twist: we ate at the cinema in front of the screen.
Dinner and a show isn't a new concept. If the old black-and-white reels are to be believed everyone in the 40s and 50s wore tails, top hats and white gloves to dinner and then went out for after-hour cocktails where they saw a beautiful woman sing a few songs. Afterward they'd go have an adventure, argue or witness a murder.
TV Trays, Hungry Man Dinners and Barney Miller
If you grew up in the 70s or 80s you know what I'm talking about. You'd go to your supermarket-of-the-future which looked suspiciously like the run-down A&P from the 50s, buy "TV Dinners," heat them up and eat in front of the 'tube while watching yet another laugh-track-driven morality play from Norman Lear or something notably forgettable by Aaron Spelling.
Dinner and a Movie
Or perhaps you remember TBS's "Dinner and Movie". Ostensibly you'd watch a movie while the hosts prepared some dinner that you might be following at home but in reality worked out for most of us as popcorn, ice cream or soda and a movie.
With the possible exception of tail, top hats and murder all these still exist. What's been missing, at least in my neck of the woods, is a real dine-out and watch-a-movie venue. No longer.
Studio Movie Grill
Studio Movie Grill is a Dallas start-up that joins "blockbuster" movies, "state-of-the-art," digital theaters and a Chili's-esque menu in one location for a "premium" experience without the premium price. (Yeah, I spent some time reading the SMG promotional material.) But why?
If you ask Studio Movie Grill they'll tell you that we're all harried and hurried and barely have time to make it out to dinner and then to a movie. And they're probably right. If you have children or a social life, making it to both dinner and a movie require quite a time commitment. How cool would it be to kill two birds with one stone? Very.
But there's another reason: enjoying the company of your friends, spouse or date without rushing around. Dinner at a restaurant followed by (usually) a car ride to the theater, standing in line to buy tickets, queuing-up to get into the theater, and again to get a bottle of water can leave you out of breath. But if you could eat dinner and then seamlessly without moving transition to watching the feature presentation means you can take the evening at a more leisurely pace. You might have some time to converse and convive.
Does it Work
From my one experience so far, I'd say it does, at least well enough. We went to the Copperfield location (NW of Houston). The theater was in a strip mall. From the outside it looked decidedly un-theater like, which I imagine was purposeful. Immediately on entering you find yourself in a lobby where you can buy tickets or lounge about waiting for friends with or without a drink from the small bar up front. Yes. You can buy alcohol at the Studio Movie Grill, notably margaritas and beer. (There may have been other offerings but I didn't see them.)
Like a regular cinemaplex you have to present your ticket to get to your screening room. Unlike the standard cinema, however, there aren't 30-odd screens and most certainly there are no kitchens. At least not like Studio Movie Grill kitchens. These are fairly well-decked out kitchens capable of producing most anything you'd find on the menu at a Chili's or comparable restaurant.
The Screening Room
You find your screening room and upon entering you notice something very different: no stadium seating. No fixed chairs. No stairs. Just a gently, downward-sloping room with fixed and movable tables. The fixed tables are row-length and separate the rows, similar to what you'd find in a comedy club. Their packed from left to right with leather swivel chairs. Behind them abutting the row-partition for the previous row are more chairs with the movable tables. There is one table for every two seats. You pick your seat. As far as I know there are no reservations.
Ordering and Menu
One of the interesting touches is how you get your server's attention. When you pick-up your tickets they give you a flat pager like the one most restaurants hand out when you're waiting for a table except this one has a button you push to page the waiter. This of course makes a ton of sense for when the lights do down for the movie.
The menu, as noted before, is pretty similar to what you'd find at a Chili's: burgers, wings, chicken tenders, beer, margaritas, nachos and fairly complete pizza menu. And of course popcorn, soda pop and candy.
Taste and Quality
Taste and quality of the meal were good. This isn't a 5-star restaurant. The menu consists of sit-down-quality fast food. My burger was good. The fries were crisp and tasty. The chicken tenders I sampled tasted just like chicken tenders. The food was well prepared, the right temperature and tasty. They're not going to win any Michelin reviews at Studio Movie Grill but then neither are Chili's or TGI Fridays who are the competition for a place like SMG.
Prices and Portions
Here's the shocker: the prices weren't that much higher than a regular restaurant. They were 30% - 50% higher but considering what most theaters charge for popcorn and soda I wasn't upset to pay $12 for a burger and fries. Most of the food on the menu ranged from $8 - $12 and the portions were big. I ordered the Bacon Cheeseburger and BBQ. I'd guess it was a 1/3 lb burger, lettuce, tomato and too many fries. One friend ordered the chicken tenders which were physically huge and came with the same "too-many-fries" portion of french fries. Another ordered the pick-three appetizer basket. No fries but the chicken tenders in the basket were the size of small-scale airplane wings. I said the portions were large. When we left I saw a lot of baskets with one or more wings or chicken tenders in them.
To give you an idea about cost there were three of us. We spent, with tip and movie ticket, about $30 a person. In addition to three "entrees" we had a pitcher of Shiner Bock. I'd call that a win. I know if my wife and I went we'd spend less than that per person because we'd share the meal and we wouldn't order a pitcher of beer. (There is an upside to going out with the guys.)
The Movie Experience
Does Food Ruin It?
All the above is fine and dandy for the restaurant experience, but what about the movie? Hearing some dude crunching fries — or worse, celery — would ruin any movie experience and was frankly my biggest worry. My next biggest worry was the wait staff. Would they block the view or otherwise interrupt the movie? I'm happy to say that on both counts my concerns were unfounded. In the first place, most people arrived early enough to order well before the movie started and even sitting with two other guys still picking over fries and chicken strips there was no distraction. It was no more bothersome than the popcorn and candy munching at a regular theater.
The wait staff were surprisingly unobtrusive. Yeah, you saw them from time to time but they were like ghost in the night. Even when we had to settle up at the end of the movie they were there and gone. It was amazingly not an issue.
The only complaint I really had was the sound system was a bit loud. Some scenes in the movie were louder than the context called for. I don't know whether that was an audio-engineering problem on the movie-production side or theater sound management. It certainly didn't seem to be a theater-format issue.
In addition to being able to eat, have a beer and not rush from dinner to the movie the other thing I liked about Studio Movie Grill was the seating. The chairs were non-descript, black-leather office-like chairs but that's not what's interesting or enjoyable about them. It's that they're not fixed to the floor. They move! On rollers! And the chairs rock back and forth and swivel like your run-of-the-mill office chair. The freedom to lean back, sit forward, rotate left or right is fantastic. That feature alone could sell me on any future theater configured similarily. The food was a bonus.
Before going to Studio Movie Grill I had heard about places where you could see a movie while eating dinner. I was a bit skeptical but oh so hopeful. My hope has not been dashed. For a casual night out where dinner and first-run-movie are on the menu, SMG deliver on the promise of "Dinner and a Movie".