Dinner and a movie — it's an icon, the foundation of millions of date-nights every year, for romantic folks and platonic buds ranging in age from 12 to 96. Movie theaters and restaurants have existed for years in this symbiotic relationship, each gaining an advantage from the classic partnership. Why fuck with a good thing?
Oh, people have tried to combine the two entertainment options into one unholy whole, with results that reflect the trials and tribulations of Dr. Frankenstein. Inevitably, one (or both) aspects of the formula ends up suffering, compromised by the attempted mash-up. Clinking beer bottles, rattling silverware and open-mouthed masticators ruin it for the film buffs, while oddly placed tables and chairs, or uncomfortable TV-tray platforms, make the dining experience resemble eating on a packed airplane. Not to mention the meal and drink options, which are rarely better than what you can find at a skating rink concession stand.
When most people dropped the Dr. Moreau meddling in these two distinctly different experiences a decade or so ago, Cobb Cinema picked up the gauntlet. And, like any big corporation that sees its revenue source dwindling in the face of changing times, it threw major resources at this possible fiduciary savior. Thoughtful design, new technology and clever thinking went into the design of the project. The result is CinéBistro, and Florida is its proving ground.
The first CinéBistro opened in Miami in 2008, closely followed by a location in Wesley Chapel. The Hyde Park location, which starting serving/showing last month, is the third spot in the line, with a half-dozen more in pre-production throughout the Southeastern U.S. Cobb gutted the Old Hyde Park 7 theater at the edge of Hyde Park Village, transforming the lobby into a space that, at first glance, looks like a modern restaurant. There's a hostess to point you to your destination, one of those tall self-serve wine systems, and a bar that puts most Tampa restaurant designers to shame. You can even eat there and skip the movie, if you'd like. You probably wouldn't like, but we'll get to that in a moment.
CinéBistro's real draw — no matter how good the food — is the novelty of eating, drinking and watching at the same time. The execution of that novelty is also the hybrid theater's strongest selling point.
It doesn't start all that hot, however. Tickets are $14.50 (plus a buck if you order reserved seats on Fandango), close to twice the price of a normal movie even before you factor in food and drink. The seats you're paying for, however, are gigantic leather monsters, with that odd combination of recliner and rocker that you never see outside of a modern theater. There are frequent breaks in rows, providing space to foil the little sounds that come with the multitude of tasks involved in eating dinner. A small tray connected to one of the arms swings noiselessly in and out of position for eating, with an indented cup for your drink and a little rim to catch stray items before they slip off the end. Glasses are made of heavy plastic, quiet when they land too hard on the tray. Clever.
You need to arrive at CinéBistro about 30 minutes before the show, giving you time to order drinks and food — and giving the staff time to prepare and deliver it — before the movie starts. No service during the movie, so be sure to order heavy if you plan to booze it up, or you can venture out to the bar for a refill. Nice way to minimize movie-time interruptions, but the practical result is that you may have to endure a plate loaded with stripped chicken bones and pungent sauces two feet from your face for an hour or two while you watch your flick.
I hesitate to even talk about the quality of the food, not because it's atrocious — it isn't — but because I'm not sure what to compare it to. Is it better than regular movie theater fare? Hell yeah, with a wine and beer list, and a full bar, that — while not inspired — contains enough quality to make everyone happy. Is it better than restaurant fare? Mmm, not really. Most of it is bland and innocuous stuff, like a national American chain restaurant that's tried to upscale its image without offending any customers. Chicken breast with serviceable sauteed mushrooms and underseasoned mashed potatoes. Ribs doused in cloying, sticky-sweet sauce with runny mac and cheese fortified by bacon. You know the drill.
I praise Cobb's restraint in the pricing, though, especially considering the usurious charges for drinks and snacks in its normal theaters. Almost everything on the menu ranges between $10-20, just a tad overpriced. You can even have a coke for $2.50. What a deal!
So, yeah, it works, better than this concept has ever worked before. If you want a mediocre restaurant meal and a slightly diminished movie-watching experience, then CinéBistro is for you. Some people will latch onto it, if only because they can order a nice bottle of wine to drink during the flick. However, I suspect that, like me, a lot of people will give the place a try for the sheer novelty of the experience. But only once or twice.