Dinner and a movie: The oldest date night in the world. One innovation has managed to change the format somewhat in the past few decades. Movie theaters have decided they want more of the equation than one part, and have added in-theater dining.
Although some are little more than glorified popcorn concessions, others taste anywhere from homemade to gourmet.
Collier and Lee counties claim four all-in-one dinner and a movie experiences.
Marco Movies and Beach Theater introduced the concept to the area. With the slogan “Great Movies, Great Food,” it merged dining room with theater by adding a few tables, some rows of low counter seating, and chairs with airplane-like flip-up trays up front.
I like having a real table surface such as the seating in the back offers, but the chairs tend to get uncomfortable after a while. Perhaps because the staff has been at it the longest of the four, the process of getting fed and entertained runs most smoothly here of those I tried, but it helps to arrive a half-hour early.
Servers actually take orders and bring food in the theater, meaning you can reorder drinks, which consist of seven types of beer and five of wine. The property has a full liquor license and so can offer cocktail specials, often themed to what is showing.
Nick Campo owns both the Marco Movies and the Beach Theater in Fort Myers Beach, which he calls the first full first-run food theater in the U.S. — opened in 1993. The more intimate Marco theater has a slightly different configuration and a more complete menu that adds Italian and seafood entrees such as baked ziti ($14) and fried shrimp and clam basket ($13.45), and more variety of pizzas and sandwiches to the mix.
The menus remain casual here. Some just order appetizers such as wings ($10), sweet potato sticks (for which, I’m told, they’re “famous,” $7), or fresh fruit with Brie ($12). For more serious appetites, the menu lists salads, individual pizzas ($6-$8), sandwiches, tacos, and quesadillas.
Food prices: Starters $5-$13, entrees $8-$15
Tickets: Matinees and children: $7.50; evenings: $9, seniors and $10, adults
Information: 239-642-1111, www.marcomovies.com
At Beach Theater in Fort Myers Beach, we tried the grilled chicken with avocado sandwich ($12) and the South of the Border Quesadilla ($13). The sandwich tasted fresh, with provolone cheese, sprouts, and a flavorful mango salsa dressing. The best part was the chewy bun, in a small sub-like shape.
Exceedingly cheesy, the quesadilla was stuffed also with chicken, chipotle sauce, and black beans — a nice, if messy, package. A cup of salsa, which tasted jarred; and beans and rice, a little on the bland side, accompanied. Some sour cream and hot sauce would have been welcome additions.
The highlight of the dessert menu, the ice cream is homemade, starring such lovelies as a peanut butter ice cream sundae ($6) made with extra crunchy peanut butter ice cream, Nutella, and chocolate peanut butter cups.
“We make the ice cream in-house, we pound our own chicken for the chicken Parmesan, we use my mother’s spaghetti sauce recipe,” said owner Nick Campo. “We’re competing with some great restaurants in the area. I’m a restaurateur at heart. You have to treat this like the restaurant business.”
Food prices: Starters $5-$12, entrees $7-$13
Tickets:$7.50 seniors and children younger than 12; $8, adults matinees and $10 adults evenings
Information: 239-765-9000 or www.fmbtheater.com
Silverspot Cinema at Mercato in North Naples was a big-time game-changer. It pulls the table service out of the theater and into its own smart lounge and dining space.
“We wanted to keep the moviegoing experience sacred while offering higher end food,” said marketing director Tom Stoup.
Silverspot also has more theaters, meaning more choices of movies.
Arrive about 90 minutes before curtain and you will have time to enjoy table service in the dining room and an appetizer such as Chinese lettuce wraps ($10.50), a chevre-and-beet salad ($8.25), and veal piccata ($19) among a well-rounded selection of other dishes.
Or, go more casual with crabcake sliders aioli ($9.75) or ratatouille pizza ($9.75). For dessert, there are Norman Love truffles and cupcakes with flavors such as red velvet and brown sugar caramel, from Grace & Shelly’s Cupcakes down the street.
With less than an hour on our hands, we followed advice to order our food to go and take it into the theater. We looked through the showcase of selections, each as tempting as the next, and consulted with the helpful staffer before settling on three mini cheeseburgers ($9.75) and a blackened chicken sandwich ($10.75).
Next stop: The full bar set up next to the food counter, where we ordered glasses of wine to sip in the lounge while we waited. Our buzzer went off just as the previews were starting, so we headed into the seats that were assigned when we ordered up our tickets outside on touch screens.
There were no tables to facilitate our dining, but the top-of-the-line seats with their soft leather upholstery and ample platform between them for drinks and food boxes eased our surprise over $15.50 tickets. Our meals impressed us every bit as much as the comfortable seats.
The fries were a little limp, but the sliders were well-prepared on buns with character. The chicken sandwich took top yum awards, slathered with barbecue sauce and topped with onion rings.
Where: Mercato, 9118 Strada Place, Suite 8205, North Naples
Food prices: To go meals $8-$12, dining room starters $7.50-$14, sandwiches and entrees $10-$26.50
Tickets: Matinees: $10.50, children 3-10 and $11.50, adults; Evenings: $10.50, children 3-10, $13.25, seniors 55 and older, and $16, adults
Something else: Children younger than 3 are not permitted in the theater
Information: 239-592-0300, www.silverspotcinema.com
CINE GRILLE AT PRADO
The newest theater, Cine Grille at Prado in Bonita Springs, opened in July. It dwells somewhere between the island theaters and Silverspot experiences. Here, too, you order your meal from the concession counter. You can either enjoy it in the little cafe in the lobby or take it on a cardboard tray into the theater. It’s a little confusing at first.
Beer and wine ($4) are the only available alcoholic beverages and cost, as our order-taker pointed out, less than soft drinks. The menu revolves around pizza, burgers, and munchies such as chicken wings, crabcakes, and onion rings.
We picked the chili cheese nachos ($6) from the “previews” section, and deemed it a different food group entirely from what most movie theater concessions pass off as nachos. Chunks of fresh tomato, black beans, cheese, and generous jalapeño slices topped crispy chips.
It was a little challenging to eat it in the dark, and the chair-arm drink holders are not suited to the plastic stemmed wineglass you get with your single serving Sutton’s Home wine bottle. But the high-backed seats did have a lot of comfort going for them.
The grilled chicken sandwich ($7) tasted as homemade as the French fries that came with it. We asked for mayo and ketchup. They came in small plastic cups, so we dressed our sandwich and fries before we went in — and were glad we did so. The theater was lightly populated that afternoon. In a full house, I would have felt uncomfortable with the somewhat awkward trays.
The good news is it opens for matinees, at $6 per ticket, and has several theaters, including 3D.
Food prices: Starters $4-$7, entrees $5-$9
Tickets: Matinees $6; evenings: $6, children and seniors, $7, students and military and $8, adults; 3-D films $8.50; DBOX matinees: $14; DBOX evenings: $14, children and seniors, $15, students and military, and $16, adults
Information: 239-992-0128, www.franktheatres.com