AMC Esplanade 14 Dine-In Theater: Sneak Preview

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If you're hankerin' for a little blackened salmon with your Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, or an Oreo mudslide with your Contagion, you won't have long to wait. The new AMC Dine-In Theater in Central Phoenix, the cineplex on the second level of The Esplanade, will open its doors to moviegoers on September 7.

Closed since May for the transformation, AMC Dine-In Theatres' "dinner and a movie" concept at Esplanade is the Kansas City-based company's ninth location and the only one in Arizona. Similar to the iPic Theatres in North Scottsdale, patrons will be able to watch movies will sipping on premium drinks, wines by the bottle, or noshing on upscale fare.

In addition to new projectors, an all-digital experience, and crazy-plush seating, AMC Dine-In Theatres offers two meal-and-a-movie options, a bar and lounge, and for traditional movie-snackers -- bottomless popcorn.

I popped by for a sneak peak and sampled a few dishes.

With a decidedly adult-centered vibe, the new Esplanade 14 has done away with the concession stand in the main lobby and has replaced it with MacGuffins Bar & Lounge (named after a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock) featuring beer, wine, cocktails, and food.

"Guests can grab a drink before the show, or after it, where they can talk about the movie," says AMC director of public relations Ryan Noonan.

Also offered are two meal-and-a-movie options:

Nine of the location's 14 auditoriums, called "Fork and Screen" theaters, feature comfortable seating, entrees such as quesadillas, burgers, flatbread pizzas, grilled sandwiches and desserts, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic specialty drinks. Guests must be 18 years old unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Five of the smaller auditoriums, known as "Cinema Suites," are more intimate, and feature posh recliners and all the "Fork and Screen" amenities, with the addition of additional dishes like lobster ravioli and tenderloin steak tips for a 21-and-over crowd.

Both options include push-button ordering, seat-side service, and pull-out tray tables. No concession stands mean you never have to leave your seat and, if you want to go the traditional route, candy and bottomless popcorn ($7) are also available.

Noonan tells me 20 to 25 percent of the seating has been taken out to make room for the more comfortable chairs and that plates and bowls are designed so they don't clink when the metal silverware hits them. Napkins are black cloth, not paper.

"We're not here to compete with other restaurants in the area," Noonan tells me. "For people who want to save time [eating while watching the movie], we offer something unique."

So are there any complaints from guests when it comes to eating fare like crispy fish and chips and wedge salads in a full theater?

"Not many," Noonan tells me. "Most of the complaints we receive are typical of many movie theaters, like talking and cell phone use."

Director of theater dining and corporate chef Jason Henderson (formerly of the Applebee's chain) tells me the idea behind the food offerings at the AMC Dine-In Theatres is flavor and comfort offered at reasonable prices with the average spend at around 14 to 16 dollars.

"Most people like the hand-held food like our pizzas and burgers, but the bistro chicken mac and cheese is really starting to take off," Henderson says.

Because all nine of the theaters offer the same food, most of the ingredients come from a distribution center with the exception of the veggies, which are sourced locally. Most of the food is prepared on site, with the exception of a few of the dessert selections.

Overall, the food I sampled was tasty -- better than I expected -- although keep in mind it was prepared for a specific event under the watchful eye of the corporate chef. Standouts included the bistro chicken mac and cheese, the bacon burger (which chef Henderson says is seasoned to order and includes a bun he designed himself), and the citrus berry stack. Even the blackened salmon was well-prepared.

Snack items like the cheese sticks were underwhelming. I'd opt for popcorn instead.

Tickets for the new dinner-and-a-movie theater will be slightly more expensive (typically starting at around $14) than at other Valley moviehouses. And due to the smaller seating capacity, it's probably a good idea to make reservations online.

With its decidedly upscale offerings, the new AMC Esplanade 14 Dine-in Theater has set its sights on changing the way we typically go to the movies. I'm looking forward to putting what it has to offer to the test.

What do you say, moviegoers with the munchies? Would you pay the price? Let us know what you think.

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