Eating dinner in the dark often can feel strange and unnatural.
I had this revelation on a recent Friday night as I groped my way through the charcuterie plate while watching a late-night movie at Harkins Camelview 14 in Scottsdale. A big hunk of blue cheese felt strangely gummy and damp. A pair of sticky, leathery figs felt more ominous than figs ever should. A spear of pickled asparagus, wrapped tightly in prosciutto, was a total mystery for a few brief but puzzling seconds. I held it up to my face until the movie screen projected just enough light to make out the frilly tip of the vegetable.
Over the past couple of weeks, I ate everything from carrot sticks with hummus to a Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich — all in the magical, communal den that is a darkened movie theater. I visited three metro Phoenix movie theaters that feature expanded food and drink menus, where I watched Get Out, Logan, and CHiPs — one of those films was ingeniously great, one was surprisingly moving, and one was purely terrible. I’ll let you guess which was which.
After three movies and thousands of calories consumed in the dark, it’s become clear to me that dining is far more pleasurable when you can see what you’re eating. Go figure.
Still, there’s something appealing about being able to order a glass of wine at the movies, and to snack on cheese that didn’t just ooze out of a plastic dispenser.
For a moviegoing experience with slightly more elevated fare than popcorn and Twizzlers, your best bet is probably Harkins Camelview 14, the luxury theater at Scottsdale Fashion Square.
For longtime Valley film buffs, nothing will ever truly replace the original Camelview, the beloved arthouse cinema that closed in 2015. Like its predecessor, the new Camelview screens more than just Hollywood blockbusters, and its design feels like a tribute to both classic film in general and hardcore cinephiles in particular.
Its sweeping lobby incorporates original art from its predecessor, along with elaborate film-themed installations that rival what you might find at a modern art museum. A projector plays black-and-white scenes of the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby on a wall. A jumble of oversize white umbrellas (an homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Singin’ in the Rain, or both?) hangs artfully over the Vérité Lounge bar, where the drink menu is formatted like a screenplay. There’s a nice outdoor lounge, too.
Along with the usual snacks, Camelview has the Lobby Café, which sells espresso drinks, gelato, desserts, and a modest selection of small plates.
The Artisanal plate is the café’s beefed-up charcuterie platter, which comes with prosciutto-wrapped pickled asparagus spears; a couple of big hunks of Point Reyes blue cheese; a wedge of Brie; slices of salami and Coppa ham; some figs and Marcona almonds; and a fistful of crackers still in their plastic wrappers. Your bounty of name-brand salumi and cheese is conveniently served in a clamshell plastic container. It’s well-balanced, fresh and tastes just fine. But for $16, you may as well enjoy a traditional charcuterie in a well-lit dining room.
There’s also a hummus plate, served with toasted pita slices and carrot and celery sticks. It’s a good alternative to normally fatty movie snacks, but a plastic cup packed with Boar’s Head hummus isn’t particularly exciting or innovative.
Probably the most unique cafe option at Camelview are the kettle nachos, a small tray of kettle chips covered in blue cheese crumbles and Applewood smoked bacon. The dish is so tongue-scathingly salty, though, you might yearn for the unnatural, buttery orange of good old nacho cheese.
Unlike Camelview, AMC Esplanade 14 in Phoenix offers the full-service, dine-in experience. The seats are extra-comfy, red-leather reclining numbers, with spacious bays and serving trays that can hold several plates of food at once. There’s a big red button at each bay where you can summon a server — service is responsive and less intrusive than you might expect.
The large menu includes flatbreads, sandwiches, burgers, salads, and desserts, and you can have a craft beer delivered right to your seat.
On a recent visit, though, at least three items on the menu weren’t available — the kitchen grill used to make the house appetizer platter, flatbread pizzas, and mac ’n’ cheese was out of service, I was told.
But there was sushi. How bad can movie house sushi be? Probably not as bad as you think — but not great, either. The crab and avocado roll, floating on squiggles of Sriracha-inflected mayo, arrived fairly quickly. It was sliced into chunky, thick rounds, with the sort of muted flavors you will recognize from scores of other middling sushi platters.
From the burger menu, there’s the Ranchero, a thick, messy burger layered with strips of roasted poblano pepper, onions and pepper jack cheese. It oozed with a tangy-sweet sauce — something called the house royal sauce. And yet, the burger itself was almost completely devoid of seasoning, and the bun quickly fell apart, the dish devolving into a damp, unappetizing pile of meat and cheese.
A plate of battered jumbo shrimp? The oversize shrimp arrived mealy, under-seasoned, and only vaguely hot, with none of the crispy texture you crave from something that was recently deep-fried.
The signature dessert at AMC Esplanade is its so-called cake stacks, essentially a cake-in-a-jar. The strawberry shortcake, recently, featured a mostly flavorless sponge cake, layered with strawberry sauce and whipped cream. It’s supposed to come with strawberry slices too, but on my visit, it was missing the fresh fruit. In the end, the dessert was like everything else: mostly clunky and disappointing.
The newest dine-in movie theater in metro Phoenix is the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a nine-screen theater in south Chandler. It’s the first Arizona location of a popular Texas-based movie theater chain, and it just opened in the Valley last December.
The lobby at the Alamo Drafthouse features a wraparound bar with ornate, brightly-painted high-top chairs. The bar’s main bragging point is its impressive inventory of craft beers: There are 32 beers on tap, including 26 Arizona brews.
Of the three movie theaters profiled in this review, the menu at Alamo Drafthouse seemed like the most promising. The selection is pretty expansive, with gourmet popcorn, wings, salads, wraps, pizzas, burgers, and a few entrees.
Unlike the AMC Esplanade, there is no fancy automated ordering. Instead, you write down your order on a scrap of paper, then stick your ticket upright on the railing at the edge of your table. Talking during a movie is strictly prohibited at Alamo Drafthouse, which makes the lo-fi paper system even more important. In practice, the system seems to work well most of the time — service was attentive during my visit, although you may find yourself awkwardly pantomiming in the dark to communicate with your server.
Even more awkward, though, is trying to find a place to put all the food you just ordered. The tables at Alamo Drafthouse are on the smaller side, and you share a table with the seat next to you. So, if you and your movie date order popcorn and two entrees, good luck trying to figure out where to put it all.
The popcorn at Alamo Drafthouse comes in big aluminum bowls, which certainly feels homey. But on a recent visit, a big bowl of the truffled Parmesan popcorn was delivered barely warm, and the kernels lacked a fresh crunch.
An order of the Hatch green chile pork fries turned out to be kind of disappointing, too. The green chile had some nice bite, but there was barely any sauce to smother more than a handful of fries.
How about that Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich? It was the best thing about sitting through a recent screening of CHiPs — the spicy chicken patty was slathered with a nice butter pickle aioli, and it was squeezed between thickly sliced, toasted white bread. Still, you have to be grading on a curve to give this sandwich top marks.
The worst thing about sitting through CHiPs, apart from watching CHiPs, was trying to gnaw through a slice of the kitchen’s Brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, and goat cheese pizza. The thin-crust pizza was very dry, and slightly acrid from where the crust was partly burnt.
A bad movie, paired with bad pizza? It’s enough to make you never eat in the dark again.
Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square 14
7014 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
Artisanal plate $16
Kettle Nachos $7.50
Traditional hummus plate $8
Fresh baked cookie $2
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AMC Dine-in Theatres Esplanade 14
2515 East Camelback Road
Crab and avocado roll $10
Ranchero burger $12
Battered jumbo shrimp $16
Strawberry shortcake cake stack $6
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
4955 South Arizona Avenue, Chandler
Truffled Parmesan buttered popcorn $8.50
Hatch green chile pork fries $9.50
Nashville hot chicken sandwich $13.50
Brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, and goat cheese pizza $13