A sign at the Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 clearly says that outside food and drink is verboten—“including Häagen-Dazs,” a reference, no doubt, to the ice-cream shop that sits so tantalizingly close to the complex. I give my ticket to the large man at the entrance anyway, hoping he assumes the brown paper bag in my other hand holds nothing more worrisome than, say, a semiautomatic pistol with an extra clip.
But no, he sees right through my ruse. Maybe he’s part bloodhound and can smell the Five Guys cheeseburger or the eight pieces of nigiri sushi encased in two rectangular containers. “You can’t take food in,” he says.
The night before, my wife, Carrie, and I sneaked a veritable ethnic grocery store into the Majestic Cinema 20 in Silver Spring for the midnight showing of Live Free or Die Hard. I was expecting a similarly easy passage here in Chinatown for a 6:10 p.m. showing of Evan Almighty. I am dumbfounded for a second. So I lie.
“It’s not food to eat here,” I say.
The dude’s not buying it, but he’s also not interested in playing the hardass. “I’m not going to see a brown bag in the aisle, am I?” he inquires, as if he’s my parole officer or something. I assure him he’s not and head immediately to the snack bar to buy a $5 Coke and $3.25 box of Goobers, the latter a guilt purchase for breaking the rules.
These are the games I have to play if I want to eat well at the movies, particularly during the summer when the major studios try to lure us out of our Netflix stupor with one bombastic sequel after another. I’m not immune to the siren song of the summer blockbuster, but I regularly strive to avoid movie-theater concessions.
Don’t get me wrong. I can enjoy “buttered” popcorn and corn-syrup soda as much as the next overweight American. Just not every time I step into a movie house, and not for $11, which is what the Regal Gallery Place charges for a medium popcorn and a drink. I blame home theaters, in part, for my grumpy disposition about cinema food. When I sit down to watch a flick, I often want a Dogfish Head beer and some quality snackage, maybe a warm round of bubbly naan with raita. I don’t want stale tortilla chips with cheese made from petrochemical sludge.
Now, I’ve read the same stories you have about movie-theater economics. I know these houses rely heavily on hawking overpriced concessions to bolster their bottom lines, and I have no interest in damming their revenue streams. That’s why I work both sides of the aisle: I smuggle in my own food, and I buy one of their pricey sodas to wash it down.
Which brings me back to the Evan Almighty screening, where I’m alternating between my burger and the nigiri from Sushi Go Round & Tapas, located right outside the Regal. I have to say, burgers work better than sushi in the dark. Five Guys conveniently wraps its burgers in foil, which you can use as a hand-held grease trap as you rip into the juicy sandwich. The sushi is trickier; opening small packets of soy sauce and then locating the dark pools of liquid can prove quite distracting. Plus, sushi degrades quickly. My surf clams are starting to smell a little like low tide.
Based on my recent experiences—and some advice solicited from pros—I’ve devised three categories that I think work well for movie-theater smuggling: fast foods, ethnic foods, and sweets.
Portable, hand-held, and far cheaper than movie concessions, fast food seems like a no-brainer. But here’s the thing: You can’t prance into the theater carrying a McDonald’s bag, nor can your food smell like some short-order cook riding home on the Metro. Plus, as Rustico chef Frank Morales notes, you don’t want to sneak in food that’s worse than the stuff on sale at the theater.
Pizza doesn’t really lend itself to smuggling, unless you buy individual slices and let them congeal to the point where they don’t drip grease. But like Five Guys, Chipotle can work— though only if you transfer the burrito to a discreet bag or purse. If you really want to test the limits, however, Morales proposes this gutsy option: fried chicken cooled to room temperature.
“I think Popeyes does a nice job on their chicken,” Morales says. If it’s “room temperature…then it’s not really going to have that much aroma. It’s actually going to be quite delicious, too.”
This category is loaded. Walk into any ethnic grocery, and the choices will be obvious. When I stopped in at Vace Italian Delicatessen on Connecticut Avenue NW for a slice, I walked out with a bagful of antipasto for my surreptitious munching: thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma, pitted Sicilian olives, and a hunk of imported provolone. Then I walked next door to Fresh Med and bought some smoked baba ghanouj, spinach and cheese pies, pita bread, and kibbe. Trust me when I say that these foods—with the exception of the lemon spinach pie, which needs heat treatment—were the only things that made Die Hard palatable.
You can forget about sushi, but individually wrapped items from your favorite taquería will work, maybe even an Ethiopian vegetarian sampler, which would not suffer from heat loss and comes with its own utensils, namely spongy injera. But I swear to god if I lived near Cosmopolitan Bakery and Carry Out in Alexandria, I’d never visit a movie house without an order of cevapcici, a blockbuster if there ever was one.
At certain CIA secret prisons, I think they torture prisoners by feeding them Jujubes, Goobers, and Raisinets. OK, I’m joking, but you can do much better than concession candy if you’re in the mood for sweets.
Panaderías are cheap sources for quality sweets, including the miniature-football-sized pastry at Mexican Pepito’s Bakery known as “kiss the monkey.” The sweet is actually a pair of sugar-dusted cake domes with a thin layer of strawberry jam pressed between them. Believe me, you’ll kiss just about anything to eat one.
But if you really have your mind set on candy, stop by Biagio, 1904 18th St. in Adams Morgan, for a bag of fine chocolates, some of which are handmade by local confectioners. Or just stop at Whole Foods, which peddles a variety of gourmet chocolates, from Lake Champlain bars to the fair-trade treats by Endangered Species. Or you could take the advice of Heather Chittum, pastry chef at Hook in Georgetown. She suggests smuggling in a jar of Nutella, an offset spatula, and a sliced baguette.
Of course, Chittum’s first choice is to sneak in her own bag of Jolly Time Healthy Pop, which she’ll pair with a package of Twizzlers or Raisinets bought at the theater. “It’s like, one or the other that I buy,” she says, “so I don’t feel as bad for bringing in my popcorn.”
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This week: Sneaking good food into the movies. Editor Erik Wemple objects strenuously to Tim's entire premise.
1:15: Movie theater economics.
2:10: Erik calls Tim an asshole.
2:30: "You are an incredible annoyance to my moviegoing," says Erik.
3:15: Movie food Tim advocates.
3:33: Live Free of Die Hard -- palatable or not?
3:45: Tim feels "like a liberal on Fox News."
3:55: Erik attacks the very premise of Tim's column.
4:15: "Some rules are meant to be broken," says Tim.
5:55: Tim lied. "An awful moment."
7:00: How close are movie people watching?
8:10: Erik's Theory of Eating: "When you eat, you eat."
8:50: Erik: "I don't snack!" "I think snacking is bullshit."
9:30: Tim's honeymoon plans.
10:20: Tim: "I've lost all credibility."
10:32: Ask Tim: Restaurants that can and preserve.