Back when dinner meant a tough cut of meat and a plain starchy vegetable, nobody expected their entrées to entertain them. For amusement, centuries of high-style eaters looked to jugglers, jousters, fiddling minstrels, brassy big bands and swanky torch singers—not their plates.
But in this age of farmstead chevre, it's considered déclassé to distract diners from whatever the chef's created. Serious restaurants would sooner serve ranch dressing with their artisan focaccia than offer a boisterous, spangled floor show. The entire dinner theater genre, once so popular that Burt Reynolds saved up his Smokey and the Bandit earnings to buy a playhouse restaurant, is now sounding its death rattle in shabby tourist towns.
Thank goodness Gold Class Cinemas doesn't care. The luxury movie theater chain, which got its start in Australia, freely acknowledges it's still fun to eat upscale food and be entertained at the same time. The theater isn't afraid to pound every dopamine receptor, providing its patrons with Jeeves-like service, a lengthy list of big-name West Coast wines and robber baron dishes, including lobster rolls and Waygu burgers.
Gold Class Cinemas Calamari $14 Caesar romaine spears $9 Blue cheese potato chips $13 NY strip steak sandwich $19 Artisan pizza $16 Beignets $8
So is it good? Does it really matter? The food's good in the same way films like Independence Day and Iron Man are good: It's silly and extravagant and satisfying. It probably wouldn't hold up out of context, just as a story about an alien invasion would sound preposterous coming from your neighbor. But within the confines of a 40-seat screening room, lit by Leonardo DiCaprio's furrowed face, the dishes are rather fabulous.
The concept works partly because the luxury Gold Class is peddling isn't a contrivance: Unlike the high thread-count sheets and signature cocktails that hotels and airlines promote, the chance to watch a first-run movie while nibbling on fresh strawberries and sipping Cristal really isn't available to most civilians. But it works too because of its elegant execution: A clumsy server or mediocre food could easily undermine the experience.
Instead, Gold Class delivers service that far surpasses what most comparably priced restaurants provide. From the moment a guest gets off the escalator leading to the quietly ritzy entry hall, furnished with chocolate-brown leather loveseats and plush scarlet side chairs, it's clear none of the staffers is going to twirl her hair or crack wise or dawdle unnecessarily. Even the woman behind the ticket counter, who—in an appropriately cinematic twist—isn't a ticket seller at all but rather a hostess, is wonderfully polite. It's her job to usher patrons to seats in the low-lit lobby, where they can have a drink before their film starts.
We spent a few extra minutes in the lobby because, as the first of three servers who approached us explained, our film's start time was delayed so staffers could finish cleaning the theater. Moviegoers at Gold Class may see all sorts of bloody mayhem unfold on screen, but the theater makes sure they never see a stray popcorn kernel or a bow-tied teenager armed with a stand-up dustbin.
Gold Class' cocktail list is pretty standard stuff, with starring roles going to vodka and pomegranate liqueur. The gin-and-ginger drink I tried was more sweet than tart, but it cut a fairly glamorous figure in its tall Collins glass.
More interesting still for the solo boozer is the wine-by-the-glass selection, which is a mite more extensive than what many restaurants offer—probably in deference to the difficulties of sharing a bottle in a dark movie theater. There are two dozen different wines available, including a Villa Wolf Gewurztraminer, a Gruner Veltliner from Austria and a Claret from Texas' own Becker Vineyards. At least half of the wines are sold for less than $10 a glass, and the list is alphabetized by varietal so movie viewers don't have to miss a crucial plot point while scouring the menu for a Riesling.
There are bottles, too: Gold Class' line-up includes a number of boldface names at a surprisingly low mark-up, especially considering the theater has the monopoly on the cinema-and-top-shelf-wine schtick. A 2007 Caymus Cabernet, for example, goes for $125 here.
Guests are urged to place their orders before entering the theater so they don't have to fuss with menus while watching a movie, but there's little pressure to do so. When I asked if I could wait to choose my food, our server immediately offered to carry our menus to our reserved seats.
I hesitate to use the word "recliner" to describe Gold Class' theater seats, as I fear it might conjure visions of a tattered La-Z-Boy with a big bowl of pretzels balanced on its armrest. This is not that. The soft, salmon-colored chairs, arranged two-by-two, are so luxe I feel like I should lapse into French to describe them. Hidden away in the chair, there's a deep compartment for purses and shoes. And, at the touch of a button, the chair silently stretches out into a near-bed. To make things even cuddlier, servers offer guests warm, fuzzy blankets before the show starts.
I wish all restaurants were so accommodating to their guests. I've sat in countless eateries, shivering and wondering where I could safely stash my bag. I've never once been given a blanket or alerted to a secret bag-hiding spot. But if I could choose just one Gold Class convenience to migrate into the restaurant mainstream, it would most certainly be the quarter-sized silver button on the oval eating surface wedged between each pair of recliners. The button's a paging mechanism for the service staff, and it worked every time. I never had to wait as long as a minute for a server. I've worked with plenty of servers who'd consider such a device degrading—and I have no doubt it could be abused—but it seemed to save my server the hassle of making needless check-in visits, and I didn't have to try to get anyone's attention in the dark. Brilliant.
And, on the night I visited, the kitchen was as efficient as the front of the house. Each little table's set with a complimentary bag of buttery popcorn, but our appetizers arrived almost as soon as the credits stopped rolling.
Every dish on Gold Class' menu has been rejiggered so it doesn't require silverware. An enjoyable Caesar salad, for example, features paddles of crisp romaine tucked into a tureen with a pool of thick, anchovy-scented dressing at its base. But I preferred the finger-friendlier appetizers, including a cone of hot, house-made potato chips coated in a tangy blue cheese fondue and garnished with fat nuggets of cheese. A serving of scraggly calamari, spritzed with fresh lemon juice and accompanied by an overtly Asian-inspired dipping sauce of wasabi and ginger, was equally good.
The appetizers turned out to be slightly better than the entrées I tried: An inexplicably salty thin-crust pizza, baked to a handsome bronze, tasted as through it had been bathed in ocean water. A strip-steak sandwich was passable, but the meat was a tad tough and there were just way too many onions on it.
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For dessert, Gold Class offers cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and lightly fried beignets, served with "seasonal" dipping sauces that include a tart raspberry puree and dark chocolate.
Of course chocolate's in season at Gold Class. So are bubbly wine, truffle oil and diamonds.
Gold Class is hedonistic and goofy and, most important, well worth the extra $15 it tacks onto its tickets. All that snazzy stuff—the lobster, the reclining seats, the snap-to-it service—is terrific entertainment, which is exactly what restaurants are supposed to provide. As Gold Class proves, there's more to a great dining experience than food.
Gold Class Cinemas 321 Town Place, Fairview, 972-549-4200, www.goldclasscinemas.com, Check website for show times. $$