David Jones seriously loves movies.
He recalls being spellbound by Star Wars as a kid. But in retrospect, the Studio Movie Grill chef feels there was something missing from the experience — food.
"I loved Star Wars," he says. "But if I could've ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a milkshake while I watched, it would've been that much better."
At various points in the 1980s and '90s, Charlotte had at least two food 'n' film establishments (Silver Screen Café and Cinema and Drafthouse), but they've long been shuttered. The concept of pairing hearty food (in addition to the standard, yet perfect, popcorn and Milk Duds), drink and films has only recently returned: Studio Movie Grill took over what used to be Mez in the EpiCentre in February while its competitor, Cinebarre, opened last August in the old Arboretum Cinemas space.
The two are more alike than they are different. One (SMG) is decidedly urban and gives Charlotte a real downtown movie theater. (One could argue that what was there before was a downtown movie theater, but really, it was more a nightclub with a movie theater attached.) The other megaplex caters to a suburban crowd.
While both theaters are open to the kiddos, it's ironically the hip, Uptown spot that welcomes them with open arms. "We are very family-oriented," says Jones about SMG. He says there was a perception that the previous theater "shunned children beginning at 8 o'clock," and says, "We're the opposite."
SMG even has special summer programming for the kids that will feature classics such as Charlotte's Web, Chicken Run, Shrek and more.
"Cinebarre definitely welcomes families, but kids under 18 must remain seated with an adult parent or guardian at all times," Cinebarre general manager Chris Hatfield says. "We do play G movies and offer a 'Cry Baby Day' [the first set of films every Tuesday] where kids of any age are welcome." Yet, kids eat free every Monday rather than Tuesday.
The theater's website makes it clear who the target audience is: "Cinebarre is an 18 and up establishment. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a responsible adult over the age of 21. No children under 3 years old are allowed, except on Cry Baby Day. Cinebarre caters to an adult clientele and strives to offer an entertaining and mature environment."
At SMG, you'll find pizza, burgers and apps (crab cakes, cheese fries, sliders) on the menu — and maybe a few things you wouldn't expect: ribs, for instance. A fruit plate and sliced apples and peanut butter allow you to eat light — perhaps so you can save room for Ben & Jerry's ice cream or frozen hot chocolate.
Each oversized seat in the auditoriums comes with its own tray table — like on an airplane, but bigger. Ordering food and drink here is as easy as pushing as a button ... literally. Just mash a red button by your seat to summon a member of the wait staff. But you may never need to use it. On a recent outing, the staff was so attentive (and unobtrusive) that the button wasn't necessary. It's an impressive feat that the wait staff (at both theaters, actually) manages to pull off. They have to take your order, bring your food and drink and later present you with the bill — all in the dark and while whispering.
Cinebarre's food includes what you might call the usual suspects (get it?) — pizza, burgers and apps. All menu items are named after movies or movie characters. Choose from Lord of the Onion Rings, Some Like it Hot Wings and Mr. Chips and Salsa. And order Arabian Nights when you want the hummus plate. Healthy eating is possible here, too. The salad section is called When Harry Met Salad.
Cinebarre offers stadium-style seating; during the recent renovation, every other row of seats was removed, so there's plenty of leg room. There's also what Hatfield calls "a walkway for the servers to sneak by and grab your order cards." A bar in front of each row of seats provides a place for plates and cups. Condiments are on top of the bar; a roll of paper towels is beneath.
Just as crying babies won't interfere with your movie watching, neither will the experience of other moviegoers ordering food next to you. "We have an ordering system that causes no disturbance at all during the movie," promises Hatfield. "Guests are encouraged to arrive about 30 minutes before the film to ensure the best seat possible and ensure they have a chance to review the menu." (At SMG, you'll choose your seat when you buy your ticket.)
Don't worry about missing a pivotal scene just because you're jonesing for more popcorn or another brewski. "You can order food and drink throughout the entire film by simply writing down whatever you would like and standing up your ordering card for your server to see," assures Hatfield. Servers come by with what he calls "Ninja-like precision."
Don't look for an Ingmar Bergman retrospective at either of these places, as the cinematic fare is mostly mainstream. Both venues specialize in first-run films, although SMG occasionally offers special screenings while Cinebarre dips a toe into alternative programming with a twice-a-month Rocky Horror Picture Show screening.
Hatfield describes the vibe at his suburban megaplex as "cool and laid-back," while Jones says his downtown theater is going for affordable elegance. But both places were clearly designed with film lovers in mind. The movies are the main attraction, with food and drink being the icing on the cake — or the butter on the popcorn, if you will. In other words, these establishments feel like movie theaters first and bars/restaurants second. So check them both out, and may the fries be with you.