I went to see a movie not long ago, and after the lights went down I noshed on popcorn, Goobers, and Raisinets. As usual, they tasted pretty good. Then, as the movie continued, I had an egg roll dipped in tomato relish, some eggplant caponata served beneath three slices of pork tenderloin, a freshly fried doughnut on a puddle of pomegranate jam, and an amuse-bouche–sized milkshake made with small-batch artisanal peanut butter ice cream.
No, I hadn’t smuggled the contraband into the theater in Tupperware containers in my purse. I was attending a “Film Feast” —a themed tasting menu served by a stealthy, nimble wait staff during a movie screening—at Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nitehawk is one of hundreds of dine-in movie theaters that have popped up nationwide over the past several years, and it’s one of the most ambitious.
In a way, the dine-in theater is a logical extension of the way most movie theaters make money. Typically, theaters split the proceeds of ticket sales with studios, with studios taking a majority of the revenue during the first couple of weeks of release and theaters getting a bigger cut the longer the movie is shown. The proceeds that movie theaters make from ticket sales rarely cover the costs of employee wages and equipment, so movie theaters make up the loss by charging exorbitant prices for ridiculously large portions of snack foods (and by showing commercials before movies).
While customers tend to grumble (or sue) when asked to pay $6 for a container of popcorn that would cost a few cents to make at home, they are generally happy to shell out for dishes carefully crafted by professional chefs. Which is where dine-in theaters come in: They’re upfront with customers about the fact that food is a major part of their business model. Charging more money for higher-quality food—and serving full meals instead of just snacks—lets Nitehawk charge less for the movie tickets themselves. (General admission to first-run movies at the Nitehawk is $11 instead of the $14 that’s typical in New York City.) Serving restaurant-caliber dishes also lets Nitehawk charge extra for special events that explore the interplay between food and cinema—like the Film Feasts, which cost $75 per person.
At most Nitehawk screenings, you order à la carte from a menu consisting of typical upper-midscale restaurant fare—kale salad, truffle ravioli, bresaola, etc.—plus beer, wine, and cocktails. Film Feasts are a different animal. At these monthly events, patrons are served a multicourse tasting menu (with drink pairings) that’s themed, and timed, to complement specific moments in the movie. The goal is what Nitehawk chef Michael Franey calls “a 4-D experience,” in which the food enhances your appreciation of the movie, and vice versa.
It’s one thing, albeit a difficult thing, to serve a 60-seat theater drinks and snacks à la carte, with no imperatives other than getting the order right and not blocking the screen while you’re serving it. (Nitehawk’s servers are expert crouchers.) It’s quite another thing to serve a 60-head tasting menu that must be timed down to the minute to achieve its intended effect of adding a new, Smell-O-Vision–like dimension to the audience’s experience. How do Film Feasts translate a movie to the plate? First, Nitehawk’s cinema director, John Woods, rewatches the chosen film and takes notes of moments that might lend themselves to culinary greatness. Then chef Franey watches with those notes in hand and starts thinking about ingredients, flavor profiles, and timing (since the courses can’t be served too close together).
Sometimes the dish choices are obvious. Early on in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for instance, we see corn dogs coming out of a deep fryer, so Franey made homemade corn dogs—with duck sausage, tomato compote, and Dijon mustard. Others are more conceptual. The main course of the Film Feast I attended, for the 1993 cult classic True Romance, was called “You’re an Eggplant.” It was served during a scene where a hapless former cop (Dennis Hopper) tells the mob boss who’s kidnapped him (Christopher Walken) that Sicilians have dark hair because of their Moorish ancestry. (Hopper actually delivers this news in far less polite terms.) It’s part of a quintessential non-sequitur Quentin Tarantino monologue, and it culminates with Hopper telling Walken, “You’re part eggplant!” Franey decided to represent the speech with eggplant caponata—a classic Sicilian dish—made with North African spices and dates instead of the traditional raisins. The pork tenderloin came in because “I just like cooking with pork.” It wasn’t until a sous-chef brought it up that Franey realized serving a Moor-inspired pork dish might be offensive to those who keep halal. “But they go well together,” he says. Besides, the taboo of pork kind of jibes with the scene, which is already pretty offensive.
It’s also pretty violent: Hopper’s character is beaten up, has his hand sliced open, and is eventually shot in the head. I was grateful for my iron stomach as I ate my way through True Romance, and I was happy to have something to look at other than the screen during the bloody parts. I should note that the beer pairings, from Lagunitas, helped smooth out the feeling of dissonance that came from watching blood spurt out of people’s bodies as I nibbled on a tasty meal. (Nitehawk’s next Film Feast movie, Anchorman, promises to be easier on the stomach.) But, for the most part, I can’t say that Franey’s cooking helped me grasp the movie any better than I would have if I’d been streaming it from Amazon on my laptop at home.
There was one exception: The first dessert course, the powdered sugar doughnut with pomegranate and blood orange jam, matched up with a moment in True Romance where a package of cocaine explodes all over Bronson Pinchot’s face. The confetti-of-coke scene occurs right after James Gandolfini, in a breakout early role as a vicious thug, thrashes Patricia Arquette. Pints upon pints of fake blood are spilled during the Gandolfini-Arquette melee, and it was fresh on my mind when I saw the sticky, red blood orange jam slicked on my plate. It was revolting. It was also delicious. Franey had created a pretty good metaphor for the perverse pleasure that comes from watching violent movies—the thrill that people get from consuming pain and suffering as entertainment.
When I saw Franey after the show, he said that he’d been hoping all the doughnut-eaters in the audience would get powdered sugar on their shirts, becoming mirror images of Bronson Pinchot getting cocaine all over his face. I looked down to see that I had indeed gotten powdered sugar on my shirt. So I guess you could say the dish worked on more than one level.
As did the evening on the whole. I can’t say I’d ever had movie food so delicious, or a restaurant meal so provocative. The dine-in theater might be a natural outgrowth of the usual cinematic business model, but Nitehawk has transformed that business model into something new and surprising—and very, very weird.