Eating plays a secondary role in so many of life’s activities. Perhaps that’s because, despite all the orgasmic prose we modern masticators attach to the thrice-a-day habit, it’s often just a utilitarian task. Chomping on a lukewarm slice of pizza while watching Prison Break, or wolfing down a Quarter Pounder in the car between errands hardly qualifies as elevated dining, but I suspect both scenarios play out far more often than soft-focus scenes of diners gently gorging themselves at, say, Thomas Keller’s restaurants.
Background eating, as I’ll call it, occurs far more frequently than we probably like to admit. The list of places where food gets second or third billing is long and varied, from movie theaters and shopping malls to rock concerts and baseball games. And that paltry accounting doesn’t even include amusement parks, bookstores, dinner theaters, circuses, state fairs, strip clubs, pool halls, sports bars, dance clubs, and maybe even houses of ill repute (I mean, what do you do while waiting for service?). Americans talk a good game, but our habits betray us; too often food is just the gustatory equivalent of white noise.
Some operations bank on the idea, like the Montgomery Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse, the new offshoot of the Arlington original at the Westfield Wheaton shopping center. The primary lure of the Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse, whether in Virginia or Maryland, is the chance to knock back a few cold ones while taking in a first-run flick. It’s the closest a 21st-century cinéaste can come to the drive-in movie experience, minus throwing bottles at the screen, of course.
The wife and I have stopped at the Wheaton outlet of Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse twice since it opened earlier this fall. Its gravitational pull is strong, given the place combines three of our favorite activities: watching movies, eating, and drinking draft beer. Our anticipation is palpable even when we know the quality of the food will hover somewhere between a Chili’s and a downtown street-cart vendor. I think it’s because, over the years, we’ve been trained to expect little more than Jujyfruits from our movie houses; anything better is considered manna from heaven, or at least the AFI Silver.
The new Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse has an attractive lounge, with flat-screen TVs, a seating area, and a full bar. Too bad I haven’t been able to enjoy it; the two times I’ve been there, the Drafthouse has had to close off its bar area while trying to improve the air flow to meet some bizarre governmental code. That forced us to “lounge” in one of the theaters, where harsh overhead lighting illuminates a threadbare space retrofitted with long, communal tables placed between rows of old, pre-stadium movie seats. It has all the charm of a high-school cafeteria—a cold high-school cafeteria at that.
Once the lights go down and the big screen lights up, you cannot see your food here. Which could be a blessing. I don’t know. I could only see the general outlines of my Drafthouse Burger (all grill flavor, no juice) or my “Black Bean Veggie Burger Wrap” (not half as disgusting as it sounds) or my Drafthouse “Fresh Dough Pizza” (all cheese, all the time) or my potato skins Italian (stay far, far away) or any of the other quasi-consumable things I sampled. The owners promise better offerings in the near future, including “homemade crab cakes, tender steak, fantastic salads and delicious deserts.” I’m quoting from one of the paper menus scattered across the communal tables.
My first reaction to this semi-haute come-hither is: Why bother? You already had me at first-run flicks and Flying Dog beer. But then I got to talking with Joe Englert, the D.C. nightlife mogul whose Rock & Roll Hotel combines indie-rock touring acts with a Mediterranean/junk food menu. I called Englert because I thought that if anyone could understand the uselessness of quality chow at clubs, concerts, and movie theaters, etc., it’d be him. He gave me religion instead.
“It’s hard to open a box of fish filets and throw them in the fryer anymore,” Englert tells me. “People don’t have a tolerance for bad food.” I’m skeptical. Is that true even in clubs like the Rock & Roll Hotel where they turn for the music first, not the menu?
“Same thing. We have to keep people there,” he responds. If you serve serious eats, Englert says, “[t]hey’re really going to have a much higher opinion of you, and they’re much more likely to order the next time.”
Englert’s theory, however, is groaning under the weight of a recent Wednesday night at the Rock & Roll Hotel. When I approach the bar to order victuals, the bartender has to fish the tiny laminated menus from behind a cash register. I practically have to blow the dust off the sucker before I can read it by candlelight. After placing an order for an eggplant panini, a hummus platter, and (God help me) a fluffernutter panini, I ask the barkeep how I’ll know when my grub is ready.
“It’ll be at the bar,” the man with nose ring tells me. “You’re the only one who’s ordered food.”
Rock & Roll’s food, even if no one’s ordering it, is a vast improvement over the comestibles at the Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse. The soft pita triangles for the hummus are streaked with char, the kind of black marks left by the best seasoned grills. The eggplant panini smacks of deep roasted red peppers and good goat cheese. And the fluffernutter? Well, it tastes like an industrial accident at the Nestlé factory.
I’m highly aware of the fact that I’m the sole person eating at the Rock & Roll Hotel—hell, I might as well totally nerd out and wear chain mail and brandish a broadsword. I’m also aware that I’m the only person not actively trying to connect to the band’s tweedy, lap-steel twist on Ray Lamontagne. My attention is solely on the dishes, which, once I realize it, sends a strange dissonant chord through my body. I’m the Judas in this crowd, the one betraying the band, the only reason that everyone else walked through the front door.
The moment makes me realize that joints that insist on quality menus, when mere background eating will suffice, are playing a psychological game. They just want you to feel good about their food, even if you don’t necessarily savor it and adore it while your attention is elsewhere. Their eats only need to hover above a certain baseline of mediocrity, below which patrons are forced, if only for a moment, to abandon the main reason they walked into the establishment. They are forced to take their ears off the band or their eyes off Angelina and exclaim to no one in particular, or maybe just to themselves, that the food here sucks.
That’s what you call breaking the illusion, and places like the Rock & Roll Hotel and the Montgomery Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse never want to break the illusion.
Montgomery Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse, 11006 Veirs Mill Rd, Wheaton, (301) 949-9200.
Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE, (202) 388-7625.
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