Standing outside the shiny new Alamo Drafthouse for the first time on Wednesday night, I found myself nursing a deep skepticism of the whole enterprise. Yes, I was excited about the company's legendary commitment to expelling rude-ass talkers, texters, and anyone inconsiderate enough to gawk at their phone for any reason once the house lights go down. But still, how can serving a full theater a progression of booze, snacks, and multi-course dinners during a movie be anything but annoying?
No other NYC movie theater's attempts at this have been able to completely pull it off, whether because the food is bad, the service irritating or the theaters themselves uncomfortable. Would Alamo finally be the one to make me simultaneously think, "I enjoy watching a movie here" and, "I enjoy eating dinner here"?
Yes! Or close enough, anyway. Here's the scoop.
- The location is unpromising... for now. The theaters are on the fourth floor of City Point's mall "in the heart of DoBro," and you enter on West Albee Street (currently under construction) before taking an escalator past all sorts of retail consumerism and reaching the Alamo lobby. Happily, once there, the mood instantly changes for the much better.
Through the mall (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
- The designers have done a fantastic job of making you forget where you are, while not falling prey to lots of random "hip" or "luxury" details. Even with the slightly off-topic House of Wax cocktail lounge, Alamo Drafthouse is, first and foremost, a movie theater, and its defining decor mostly involves a terrific collection of vintage Turkish one sheets. The Overlook Hotel carpeting is pretty dope too.
- The seating at Alamo is very pleasant: nice and wide (and clean! the staff wipes them all down after each showing/feeding), with ample leg and armrest room. I've always thought the actual reclining part of those now-ubiquitous recliners to be overrated, and I believe the fixed, comfortable Alamo seats prove my point.
Prices are cheaper than most Manhattan theaters at $14.50 a ticket, plus a $1.35 "booking fee" if you buy online, which is almost mandatory in this era of reserved seating. I saw two movies here this week, first in the mid-sized Theater 5—capacity 118—and the other the next night on the largest screen in the place, Theater 7, which seats 192. There were no surprises, sight-line-wise, and the sound and image quality in both were superb.
Latecomers will NOT be seated, so if you're the sort to use the reserved seating system to skip the trailers and waltz in during the opening credits, you might get turned away at the theater door here.
- Once you're settled into your seat, and after your server explains the theater's strict no texting policy, the logistics of ordering food and drink are smart, simple, and best of all, silent. Just write what you want on one of the provided scraps of paper, stick it upright in the slot at the front of your tray-table, and your server will take care of the rest without discussion.
A dim lamp under your tray-table is useful and non-intrusive—you could, and I did, read the menu and order during the movie without disturbing your seat mate—but the choices are extensive, and since presumably you'd rather be watching the show than mulling over which milkshake to get, arriving early is definitely the right move. Besides, the goofy retro clips and other oddities that play while you wait are way more entertaining than any of the sponsored "inside-look" pre-shows you see at the other theater chains.
The black-clad, stooped-over servers scurry around like ninjas throughout the movie, delivering food, grabbing order cards, clearing dishes. They bring everyone their checks at about the three-quarter mark. This is all done with remarkable discretion. Yes, there are still some rough edges to the process—no surprise, given that it's just Alamo's first week and the operation is unlike any other restaurant—but for the most part the staff do a terrific job.
- The food itself (PDF of menu) is great! And not just movie-theater great, but even casual-restaurant great.
The big winner is the Chips and Queso, a favorite at the Austin original that has successfully made the trek to the big city. This is basically just a bowl of warm, thick, spicy cheese with a mess of crisp chips for dipping, and it's exactly as good as you would want such a thing to be. The Hot Wings are also terrific, the eight bits of bird wonderfully plump and juicy with no holding back on the heat. It's a spectacularly messy thing to eat in a dark room, but they give you a wet-nap and your date won't be able see the sauce smeared all over your face anyway.
The Jerk Chicken Sandwich (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
- All the sandwiches sound appealing, and the Jerk Chicken one is indeed delicious, with the tender breast meat packing some serious seasoning. It is a bit of a disaster to eat, thanks mostly to the avocado crema, but just lean over your tray and you should be good. The accompanying sweet potato fries taste good but suffer from being served barely warm. The same is true for the Lamb Bazlama flatbread, an ambitious combination of ground lamb, raisins, radishes, and pickled onion that the kitchen totally pulls off—the flatbread itself has a pleasant crispness—but it needs to get from the oven to your seat a bit faster. The sweets are disappointing, especially the flavorless (albeit warm and aromatic) Cookie Trio, though the blah Chocolate Peanut Butter Shake isn't worth the calories either. Seems like they can fix this part of the menu pretty easily though.
Overall, there's good food, delivered unobtrusively in a comfortable setting, at a cost competitive with any other dinner-and-a-movie night in town. I'm still not entirely convinced by the concept—I find it difficult to focus on the screen while eating a meal, though Doctor Strange was easier to follow between bites than the subtitled Handmaiden—but Alamo Drafthouse delivers on the hype of being the best such theatre around.