» Aksarben Cinema
2110 S. 67th St.
» AMC Westroads Theater
10000 California St.
» Film Streams
1340 Mike Fahey St.
» Marcus Majestic Cinema
14304 West Maple Road
Hits: The $7 healthy snack pack at AMC, cookies from Elkhorn's Two Birds Bakery at Film Streams and the bruschetta with fresh herbs and tomatoes at Majestic.
Misses: AMC's popcorn was our least favorite; we also didn't really like either of the pizzas we sampled.
Prices: Pretty expensive. Dinner will run at least a $20, and that's before drinks or soda.
Service: Across the board, the service we encountered at theater concession stands was friendly and prompt.
* * *
My usual movie theater menu includes a jumbo Diet Coke, a few handfuls of salty popcorn and a box of Hot Tamales.
But this month, I've eaten a chicken sandwich on a pretzel bun, nibbled a bruschetta topped with fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes and sipped a hand-muddled mojito, all while sitting in a movie theater lobby — once amid the tinkling sounds of a player piano.
Dinner and a movie, as it were, is being redefined, and it has nothing to do with restaurants.
In the past month, I saw five Oscar contenders — this year's Academy Award nominees will be announced later today — at four Omaha theaters and made a point to sample the food, both good and bad, while I was at each one.
The AMC Westroads is as packed with teenagers as it was when I was one in the 1990s, repeatedly viewing “Tombstone” at the old Westroads 8 theater and chowing down those Hot Tamales. My husband had already proposed the idea of an “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” double feature and we invited my movie-loving sister to come along.
Post-“American Hustle” (loved it) we settled into one of just a few tables sandwiched between the drafty door and a “Fast and Furious” themed video game to dine with our coats on. Clearly, AMC Westroads is not set up for eating outside of a movie seat.
First thing I noted: Most things on the menu at AMC have more calories than a person my size should consume in a day. Second thing I noted: An order of chicken tenders with a side of fries and a drink is $18.50.
Theater prices across the board were high, and the amount we spent on food at each place, not including tickets, could equal dinner at a pretty nice restaurant. I spent more than $50 for all the snacks, food and drinks I ordered at Westroads: one small popcorn, one box of fruit snacks, two sodas, chicken sliders, a mini pizza and one of the theater's “healthy” snack packs for my sister, which included a bottled water, some freeze dried fruit snacks, an Odwalla granola bar and a bag of popcorn chips. The length of time it took me to spit out that order definitely irritated the nine people who lined up behind me as I perused the menu.
The friendly kid at the counter informed me it was the first time he'd ever sold one of the $7 “healthy” snack packs, and it took him about five minutes to track down the three snacks. When I asked him why he thought he'd never sold one, he said he guessed it was because most people don't see the pack, which I can understand. It's not listed on the menu and it's not next to the candy. It's inside a little window at the front of the counter — and it's been there long enough that at least one of the packaged snacks we got had completely redesigned its wrapper since the theater set up its display.
The granola bar tasted fresh, and so did the dried fruit chips, but the popcorn chips were stale. Even so, we liked it more than the rest of what we got: Two chicken tenders on a cut in half hot dog bun — the slider buns weren't hot — and a pizza akin to the Totino's Party Pizzas I reluctantly ate in college.
We ate some of the lukewarm popcorn (small kernels, pretty underwhelming) during “The Wolf of Wall Street” (gratuitous and dirty, and I still liked it more than the popcorn.)
Film Streams, where I saw a weekend morning screening of “Nebraska” (excellent film all around, my pizza-loving friend Mr. Payne) has an ever-rotating selection of locally made snack. I've seen sweets and popcorn balls from local makers there before, but I was even more excited this time to see tiny bags of peanut butter dimple cookies from Elkhorn's Two Birds Bakery. The vegan treats went great with my hot coffee from Blue Line, which provides the theater with beans that they brew all day and night — I get a cup almost every time I'm there.
Aksarben Cinema is focusing on a lot more than just snacks. We went there one evening to take in “Saving Mr. Banks” (loved Emma Thompson).
Aksarben has a full bar and a seating area created for people to eat food more substantial than candy before or after a flick — a design, owner Bill Barstow said, that was thought out. In fact, he said he sees more and more people getting to movies early enough to eat a burger and drink a beer instead of just wait in line for a snack.
I dug both the grilled chicken sandwich I ate and the pulled chicken. Both were served on fresh pretzel buns, with a kicky sweet and spicy Thai sauce on one and a tangy barbecue on the other. An order of freshly-made waffle fries came with a touch of seasoning and the right amount of salt. The food and drinks plus popcorn during the show ran around $35.
The bar at Aksarben runs regular drink specials, and they had two “Anchorman” themed specials when we visited: $1 off whiskey drinks and a special sweeter cocktail cleverly called the “Jazz Flute.” Barstow said the theater always has fun drink specials tied to superhero movies, too. It's new counter full of healthy snacks and food — big salads, hummus, vegetable sticks — is up and running, as is a much naughtier ice cream counter.
The thing I liked best about Aksarben and the last theater we visited, the new Marcus Majestic, was the thought put into the seating areas. At Aksarben, there's no wind chill from the door, the lighting is nice and the atmosphere is welcoming. Two other couples sat in the area before their movies started, and at least one other came into the seating area after their movie ended to have a beer.
I saw the same thing happening at Majestic, where people lingered in the lobby around that player piano and sat at the bar before their movies began with buckets of popcorn and glasses of wine or cups of beer — a combination I saw time and again at both theaters.
At Majestic, we encountered our favorite popcorn of this mini-prowl, a piping hot bucket almost air popped in texture and just salty and buttery enough for us both. It wasn't greasy or thick tasting like some of the others we tried. Trust me when I say it is a lovely pairing with Cabernet and isn't bad with a mojito, which you can order off the cocktail menu. And all of the drinks are named after movies. (Yes, there is a “Sex and the City” variation on the cosmo. I did not sample.)
After our screening of “Her” (thought provoking, and Joaquin Phoenix was perfect for the part) we ordered some food: bruschetta, a small pizza sized for two and spinach and artichoke dip. We encountered the best thing we ate in the bruschetta, with its lightly dressed fresh greens, chunks of cheese drizzled with balsamic and fresh halved cherry tomatoes. I'd not be surprised to see something like it served outside of a movie theater.
The spinach and artichoke dip, spiked with tiny red and green chunks of pepper and big pieces of artichoke, came with a side of salsa (just okay) and thick, fresh tortilla chips. I liked it too, for what it was. The pizza was just okay. It came hot and tasted freshly baked, though it was definitely of the frozen variation. The tab total at Majestic ran about $45.
I'll return to Majestic for that popcorn, to Film Streams for its locally made sweet snacks and to Aksarben for its welcoming design and creative drink offerings. And those Hot Tamales? Those have officially been replaced with wine in a plastic cup and a bucket of popcorn.