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Dinner and a movie comes to Philly-area theaters

Going to some movie theaters on an empty stomach can get to a person, as you watch Bradley Cooper whip up gastronomic delights in Burnt, suffer near-starvation with Matt Damon in The Martian, or crave a "Dirty Martini" because 007 has just ordered one in Spectre.

Studio Movie Grill on 69th Street in Upper Darby opened in July in a freshly updated cineplex.
Studio Movie Grill on 69th Street in Upper Darby opened in July in a freshly updated cineplex.Read moreJONATHAN TAKIFF / Staff

Going to some movie theaters on an empty stomach can get to a person, as you watch Bradley Cooper whip up gastronomic delights in Burnt, suffer near-starvation with Matt Damon in The Martian, or crave a "Dirty Martini" because 007 has just ordered one in Spectre.

But now, that sudden stirring for food and drink can be fulfilled, with the mere push of a seat-side service button while taking in your flick du jour at one of the plush dine-in theaters reenergizing the movie experience for Philadelphia area residents and the nation.

Creeping north from Texas and first tested here to great success in Collegeville, the Dallas-based Movie Tavern group recently opened its second and more finessed dining-in theater complex on Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown.

A third Movie Tavern will light up Monday in Exton, and Trexlertown, near Allentown, is next on the agenda. The chain is focused on suburban settings where there are fewer entertainment and dining options but a big population base.

Out on 69th Street in Upper Darby, Studio Movie Grill is likewise serving "American bistro"-style cuisine and drinks at your seat, in a freshly updated cineplex. The firm hurried its July opening and has just refurbished the last two of nine theaters.

This surge of dine-in theaters comes down to dollars and sense. As a retort to big-screen home theater rigs and surging video-on-demand services, studios support dine-in theaters because it's "bringing people back to the movies," said Movie Tavern marketing director Danny DiGiacomo.

And cinema-eateries are pleasing to exhibitors because it gives them a major new profit opportunity.

Theater operators keep only a fraction of the box-office take of first-run movies, netting about 5 percent of ticket sales, said a seasoned cinema-industry consultant, Jack Oberleitner. By contrast, concession sales provide a "60 to 70 percent profit margin."

That's why spiffy eat-in theaters - first introduced "with multi-course dining and film experiences in Singapore," according to Oberleitner - are now growing in the United States, too.

"The trend here started in the South, now is moving north," Oberleitner said. "Today, there are upward of 800 such locations nationwide; a year ago it was 550. And within a decade, we'll hit 2,000. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find a stand-alone movie theater, even in a small town, that doesn't offer those amenities."

Envisioned as a boon for busy families, and as a rejuvenator even juicier than 3-D for the mature movie business, the one-stop dinner-and-a-show concept harks back to the swinging age of supper clubs.

But at today's one-stop entertainment destinations, there's no need to bribe the head waiter to score a good seat. Just reserve your location online, paying a $1.50 processing charge. Then show up whenever you feel like it.

The food is not gourmet. It's often at a level of moderate-priced American cuisine and tends to be victuals you can consume by hand. There's no carving in the dark. It's more about burgers, salads, wraps, pasta, pizza, desserts and drinks.

Some may wax nostalgic for the aluminum-plated age of Swanson TV dinners consumed in front of the 21-inch Muntz or Philco so as not to miss The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Bonanza.

But the comfort level is far better today at eat-in theaters. Experiencing one for the first time is like being upgraded at the gate from tourist to first class on an overseas flight.

At the Movie Tavern in the Flourtown Shopping Center, eight steeply raked, stadium-style theaters plus a welcoming lobby and adjacent drinking/dining tavern have been built within the shell of an abandoned supermarket at a cost of $9 million. Surprisingly intimate, the smallest (86-seat) screening room features just six wide rows, yet still sports a large, slightly curved screen and walloping surround-sound.

And while the region's first Movie Tavern in Collegeville (opened 2011) has recliner chairs on just the first row "as an accommodation to people sitting under the screen," DiGiacomo said, "we've continued to evolve and polish the concept."

So at Flourtown, every seat in every theater is a wide-body, motor-activated leather recliner with elevating foot rest and swing-out food tray. Still, there's enough aisle room remaining for stealthy, Ninja-like waitstaff to wiggle by discreetly.

At 69th Street's Studio Movie Grill, a retrofit of a multiplex, the "pleather" seats don't recline and the rake of the theaters isn't as steep. But the digital projection system and sound are polished, and the waitstaff attentive.

And while there is no weekend brunch menu, as Movie Tavern has, the mostly finger-food options and beverages at Studio Movie Grill are otherwise comparable in price and quality, averaging $12 for entrees and $7 for a six-ounce pour of decent wine. Note that the venue automatically tacks on a 17.5 percent tip, which makes paying in the dark easier.

The Upper Darby theater also boasts a snazzy bar, inexpensive matinee tickets ($7) and daily specials, from $5 big beer cans to all-you-can-eat pizza ($10) on Wednesdays.

All to better serve the "mostly neighborhood" clientele and attract "more guests from Center City and University City who have yet to discover us," said general manager Christopher Brett, who says he was hired due to "my background in food service."

The Studio Movie Grill is easy to reach, he added, with free garage parking and "just a block and a half from the 69th Street Terminal."

Feeling the winds of change, major chains AMC and Regal have likewise installed comfy recliners and seat-side or adjacent dining and bar experiences at their cineplexes in Moorestown and Deptford in New Jersey, and Plymouth Meeting and West Chester in Pennsylvania. More locations are targeted for a comfort and cuisine upgrade in the coming year, employees were told.

In Philadelphia, only the Cinemark University City Penn 6 now offers alcoholic beverages and food in an adjacent lounge. (There's no in-theater service here.)

As for Center City, concept specialist iPic made moves in late 2013 to transform the old Boyd/Sameric Theater at 19th and Chestnut Streets into eight "luxury boutique" screening rooms. They were planned to be so posh and pricey (up to $25 a ticket) as to include complimentary snuggle blankets at your recliner seat.

But the trial balloon failed to win community support and financial backing. And the Boyd came tumbling down.

215-854-5960 @JTakiff