The first time anyone thought of combining film and food may have been about 100 years ago. In the early 1920s, organizers of the annual “renegade” Paris art exhibition, the Salon d’Automne, added both cinema and gastronomy to its notion of art. And then – voila! – they combined the two. In 1924, right in the middle of the grand salon, guests watched a film while they dined. The Salon’s novel idea did not migrate to the U.S., however.
It was an entirely different motive that brought the two together here. In the 1940s, entrepreneurs created small movie projection rooms available for rental by companies that wanted to screen films for their employees or the public, and to serve meals. Usually the films were training or promotional films, but evidently major Hollywood studios also used these screening rooms at times, perhaps for managers of movie houses. In NYC, for example, the Monte Carlo was used by Paramount in 1946. [Shown above, 1945, and during a ca. 1949 screening below]
The broader concept of combining food and film for the entertainment of the general public began to emerge in the 1970s. The Ground Round chain showed silent films and cartoons in the mid-1970s. About the same time, the New Varsity Theater in Palo Alto CA granted free movie admission to diners at its associated restaurant (though the dining area was not in the theater’s viewing area). Popular films included Reefer Madness, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. The restaurant was also a place for meetings of the French Cine Club, which followed its dinner with a French film. It’s likely that the theater and restaurant often hosted students.
In Boston a bit later, a combination restaurant/bar/theater named Play It Again, Sam, served as a popular student hangout, especially for those attending Boston College. Mexican-American food was served.
At the same time, in 1975, two brothers in Florida conceived the idea of a way to fill new malls with nighttime entertainment for adults. This took the form of a restaurant-theater called Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse showing movies rather than live performances, and selling beer, pizza, and sandwiches. By 1980 they had created four, three in Florida and one in Atlanta GA. One of them was franchised.
By 1994 the Duffys had created 22 Cinema ‘n’ Drafhouses, twenty of them franchised. In their prospectus they asserted that theirs was “a proven recession-proof product – food, drink and film – combined in a stylish, art deco theater.” They also suggested to franchisees that the theaters could be rented for private parties as well as being used in the daytime for business seminars. Another 1980s start-up was the Cabaret Pictures Show in St. Petersburg FL where the menu emphasized finger foods such as pizza and sandwiches.
The concept of the combined restaurant-theater really took off as downtown movie theaters began to fail and sit empty in the 1980s and 1990s. Theaters had become more dependent on strong concession sales, and selling drinks and dinners was an extension of this type of revenue. Typically these combo-businesses showed second-run movies that appealed to viewers of drinking age.
The franchised theater-restaurants, such as those created by the Duffy brothers of Cinema ‘n’ Drafthouse (Cinema Grill Systems) seemed to fare better than some individual attempts. Expertise in running a restaurant did not usually extend to theater management. Cinema Grill Systems helped by handling movie selection and distribution, permitting operators to focus on the restaurant and bar.
The Cinema Grill franchise in Harrisburg PA, depicted here in 1997, showed two movies a week on a large high-resolution screen. Its menu included burgers, pita specialties, jalapeno poppers, and even sangria. The seating setup is shown here, and it is clear that the space is not as dark as in traditional theaters.
The winning formula has emphasized comfortable seating in cushy non-stainable leather lounge chairs, and a menu with popular casual dining/brewpub fare. Over time a number of chain-restaurant favorites have appeared on menus, such as fajitas, wraps, and chicken tenders. Despite a fairly high failure rate, theater-restaurants have proven popular with customers who are looking for a reasonably affordable and enjoyable night out, but are not overly demanding about the fare, whether food or film.
© Jan Whitaker, 2021