Dinner & a Movie: My Date With Sandra Bullock

Patrons can also drink without seeing a movie.

Patrons can also drink without seeing a movie.

As home theaters get bigger, movie theaters have battled back with lounge chairs, food, and booze—all the comforts of home, and no popcorn to vacuum out of your couch the next morning. Our region has seen several such venues open recently, the priciest being Redmond’s Gold Class Cinemas, and the most urban being the Big Picture in Belltown and Central Cinema on Capitol Hill.

Since our Voracious food blog (seattleweekly.com/voracious) has launched a “Dinner & a Movie” column, I decided to combine those elements at the Cinebarre, which opened last summer in Mountlake Terrace. The movie of choice: Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side, a surprise hit which just earned her a Golden Globe award.

Situated in a strip mall, next to an Office Depot and a urology clinic, Cinebarre replaced the old Mountlake 9, previously operated by Regal, the nation’s largest movie exhibitor. The industry rule at work is: If you open a new multiplex with raked seating, multiple snack bars, and a 3-D screen or two, you’ve got to close the old, threadbare, sticky-floored survivor nearby. AMC’s Alderwood 16 now dominates lower Snohomish County, and Regal’s abandoned box was taken over by Cinebarre, a small North Carolina company that’s now expanded to six locations nationwide.

Unique among the mini-chain, the Mountlake Terrace Cinebarre is 21 and over, which sounds like a blessing. Think about it: No clamorous tweens lined up for Twilight; no shrieking, sugar-crazed kids waiting for Alvin and the Chipmunks; a place where grown-ups can settle down for a nice R-rated movie with a drink. In this way, making moviegoing less like home would seem an attractive notion.

As for a business strategy, dinner-and-a-movie joints face two main challenges: 1) having the clout to book first-run pictures from studios (a problem for Central Cinema and the Big Picture), and 2) pricing a menu above the cheese-drenched nachos at Pacific Place yet below the $100-plus you can spend for a dinner date at Gold Class.

Then there are the variables of ambience, service, and mood. A Bud Light van parked outside and a Super Bowl party promotion inside did not bode well for Cinebarre. The concrete-floored lobby is loud, and aluminum patio chairs scrape annoyingly on that surface. But there’s a big central island bar, surprisingly well-populated at 8 p.m. on a recent rainy weeknight. With large, colorful movie posters on the walls, it’s actually not a bad place for northenders to grab a drink—movie or no movie.

Eventually I found my way into one of Cinebarre’s eight theaters—comparable in size to the Metro’s, but with much wider spacing to accommodate short counters in front of each row. They’re more comfortable than Central Cinema, and unlike Gold Class, where you wait for your server, there’s a big paper-napkin dispenser and a plastic menu right in front of you. Before the trailers, a video explains how to order: by pen and pad, then the server grabs your ticket. My pint of Red Hook ESB ($5) came back swiftly, giving me a chance to sink into the movie. (Other drink-menu items include the Pulp Fiction mimosa and Donnie Daiquiri, both $6.)

Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, The Blind Side was not fated to please the coastal art-house crowd: It’s about football, it’s set in the rich, white, churchgoing suburbs of segregated Memphis, and Bullock plays a pushy, teased-out blonde decorator/housewife who saves a homeless black teen (Quinton Aaron) from the dangerous projects and his crack-smokin’ mama. It sounds patronizing at best, racist at worst: white folks helping those poor black folks who just can’t help themselves.

Yet the movie isn’t quite so simple. Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball) and writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Alamo) devote more attention to education and family structure than to football. The first half of the movie is about the ins and outs of school admission, tutoring, classroom politics, and obtaining the birth records necessary to establish child custody. Bullock doesn’t play her character as a saint; her “stop the car” moment isn’t one of conspicuous Christian virtue or Southern white guilt, but something in between. Her Leigh Anne Tuohy—a real woman—is an overbearing multitasker who craves another project. Being a wife, career woman, and mother isn’t sufficient.

There are charity and compassion, yes, but also the nagging sense of unfulfillment. Bullock’s screen husband—country-music star Tim McGraw, bland but capable—has made a fortune in fast food. She has a big house and a BMW, but it’s not enough. Though its huge red-state audience—$220 million and counting—might disagree, The Blind Side is as much a parable of feminism as it is about football.

Menu pun alert! On the “Mystic Pizza” side of the menu, I weighed and rejected the Barbarella, Gladiator, and Bull Durham (all 10-inch pies in the $11–$13 range). So too the $10 Blue Velvet Burger (with PBRs available from the bar! Dennis Hopper would approve) and Big Lebowskies [sic] pickle chips ($7). Instead I opted for the Fight Club chicken sandwich ($9), a savory contest between poultry and bacon strips served with fries that were tasty but cut too small for finger-picking in the semi-darkness.

The theater is dim enough to enjoy the movie but still see your food; it’s harder, however, to spot and wave to the server. Unlike Gold Class, Cinebarre has no call buttons. There’s a short window of time to order during or before the trailers; the Cinebarre kitchen isn’t that large (it occupies one of the old theaters), but my bias is that moviegoing shouldn’t be a fancy, dress-up experience. (The tab for two beers and a sandwich: $20, plus tip and $10 ticket.) If you want to pay a premium for haute cuisine, a movie shouldn’t be part of your meal.

In this way, Bullock’s regular-mom-next-door persona in The Blind Side is well-matched to the suburban Cinebarre demo. The movie is intended to be uplifting and inspirational—not such a bad thing in today’s paper-napkin economy. And it is supported by fact: One of 13 kids, Michael Oher graduated from the University of Mississippi and today plays offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.

Maybe I’ll check out that Super Bowl party after all.


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