Booze and movies have gone well together at least since Garbo ordered the bartender not to be stingy with her whiskey. So why has it taken so long for them to be paired in New York? A Prohibition-era law banning the sale of alcohol in the theaters was one hurdle. In 2011, a new movie house, Nitehawk, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, successfully lobbied for the law’s repeal. And the saloon doors swung open for city cinephiles.
Now Nitehawk has company. Since last January, three theaters serving moviegoers food and cocktails at their seats have opened in New York; a fourth has a restaurant, bar and bookstore for pre- or post-film fare.
How is a New Yorker to choose? I’ve sampled the cinema, sipped the cocktails and silenced my cellphone at all five movie houses. What follows is a highly subjective, idiosyncratic and impressionistic guide.
136 Metropolitan Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn
What I Saw: “Moonlight”
What I Sipped: High Spirits
The Popcorn File: At five years old, Nitehawk is the granddaddy of swizzle-stick cinema in the city. And it’s hard to top the experience here, as good as its new competitors are. I settled in to my plush red chair for a late screening of the Oscar contender “Moonlight,” and promptly ordered the bones-warming High Spirits, a Nitehawk special made from Jameson Irish whiskey, spiced apple cider syrup, ginger beer and bitters. And then I ordered another. I’m pretty sure the movie was excellent. Next time I hope to attend one of the popular Signature Series, like the brunch screenings (this weekend it’s Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”!), but that brings me to a wee quibble about Nitehawk: Many of its series sell out days in advance, but seats are not reserved. That means the ubiquitous New York line, which is tiresome even if it tries to be cool. Still, Nitehawk rules the reels.
40 Bogart St., Bushwick, Brooklyn
What I Saw: “A Christmas Story”
What I Sipped: Cinema Paradiso
The Popcorn File: Syndicated had me at “Bogart Street,” even if “classic” fare here is more likely to mean ‘80s and ‘90s than ‘30s or ‘40s. The look is industrial Deco chic — a match for a converted warehouse on a raw block of Bushwick. No plush red velvet loungers here. Rows of benches upholstered in earth tones have backs so high you can’t see the tops of the millennial heads in the row in front of you, and they are surprisingly comfy. Half-circle tables divide the benches into cozy pairs. As you do at Nitehawk, you note your food and drink order on slips of paper gathered silently by waiters. My “bacon butter meatballs” were fine. I did not care for the gunpowder popcorn. But, oh, that Cinema Paradiso. A perfect take on a Manhattan, made with Brooklyn’s Van Brunt rye, Dopo Teatro vermouth, dry sherry and house-made pistachio cardamom bitters. Plus, the three cherries were skewered so I didn’t have to go finger-diving for a stem. I was wholly content sitting bolt upright on my bench while everyone on-screen was telling Ralphie, who longs for an air rifle for Christmas: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
7 Ludlow St., Lower East Side, Manhattan
What I Saw: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”
What I Sipped: The Zhivago
The Popcorn File: I wanted to love Metrograph. Alexander Olch, its founder, told me he saw it as a place for film fans to hang out, before and after the movie. That’s why the food and cocktails are served upstairs in the Commissary restaurant, not delivered to your theater seat, although for the theater you can buy somewhat precious snacks like “Jelly Babies Circa 1918 England” and lemon cayenne water from a lobby shop that owes more to Claes Oldenburg than to your typical popcorn stand. But hanging out is hard to do when the restaurant is closed from 4-6 p.m. — which meant I was too late for lunch before a 4:45 Saturday showing of the classic John Wayne-Jimmy Stewart western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and too early for dinner before a 7:15 Sunday showing of the French musical “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”
Seating for “Liberty Valance” did not begin until 15 minutes after the film was scheduled to start — not a crime, but if the somewhat indifferent staff apologized to the handful of moviegoers waiting in the lobby or even made an announcement about the delay, I missed it. Great movie, interrupted a half-dozen times when the 35-millimeter print failed and was promptly fixed by the projectionist. All was forgiven by the second visit. The 50-red-velvet-seat theater (a second one seats 175) was full for “Umbrellas,” the “La La Land” of its day. My party of five dined at the Commissary afterward. The Metrograph burger was good if a little dear at $17, and the Zhivago, a concoction of vodka, horchata and cacao bitters, was sublime.
But the Metrograph, for me, is all about the movies: It has impeccable programming. Wish I’d caught a preview screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript. The movie opens in theaters next month, but Metrograph’s screening featured an appearance by filmmaker Raoul Peck. The companion book to Peck’s documentary was flying off the shelves at Metrograph’s alcove bookstore, a tiny treasure for cinema lovers and, yes, a place to hang out.
445 Albee Square West, Downtown Brooklyn
What I Saw: “Manchester by the Sea,” “Jackie”
What I Sipped: A Brooklyn
The Popcorn File: Alamo’s flagship theater in Austin inspired Nitehawk, and Alamo has set up shop in downtown Brooklyn — its 25th dine-in theater but its first in New York City. A pity about the location. You want to feel the cool Drafthouse vibe, but how can you when you have to navigate the stuff of sterile suburbia: a spotless mall in the City Point development, up the escalator to the fourth floor, past the Century 21 department store. Ah, but then you pass through the Alamo doors and there it is — the carpet straight out of “The Shining,” the charcoal wallpaper with its movie-projector pattern, the friendly hipster with the Brooklyn beard at the box office. I snapped a picture of my husband in front of a photographic mural of the city skyline, posed like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, swatting at model airplanes.
The Saturday matinee of the awards contender “Manchester by the Sea” was quiet, but enough of the luxe black leatherlike chairs were filled that I didn’t feel as if I was drinking my pre-noon cocktail alone. (The Brooklyn, a rye whiskey, dry vermouth, Amer Picon, orange and maraschino, is rated R on the menu.) The wild mushroom flatbread was tasty, but a New England clam chowder was on offer if you wanted to feel as one with the film’s star, Casey Affleck. I demurred.
I returned a week later for “Jackie,” and was charmed and moved by the package of preshow films, which included a newsreel of Jacqueline Kennedy water-skiing with John Glenn — “the astronaut and the first lady put on a dazzling show” — and another announcing Kennedy’s delivery of a premature son, Patrick. Glenn had died three days before this screening, and the baby did not survive beyond a few days. By the time the clip from the Richard Harris-Vanessa Redgrave “Camelot” played, the tears flowed freely and the glass was empty. I ordered the pancetta-and-leek mac and cheese, and the fried pickles, both good. In addition to its first-run fare, the Alamo Drafthouse programing includes repertory genre series like Girlie Night, Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday, all imported from Austin.
iPIC FULTON MARKET
11 Fulton St., Lower Manhattan
WHAT I SAW: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
WHAT I SIPPED: Tuck Old-Fashioned
THE POPCORN FILE: This luxury multiplex has the opposite ambience of a Nitehawk or a Metrograph, but what do you want from the South Street Seaport. Hello, sailor. The Vegas-meets-Flintstones aesthetic is not for everyone. I found it quite cozy in the Premium Plus orange recliners, which come with a blanket and pillow — very handy for my snooze through “Rogue One.” The ticket cost $28, which included the popcorn but not the lobster roll (delicious at $21) or the cocktail (a bit sweet). Here you press a button on your swiveling seat table to order food, and the waiter arrives to take your order orally rather than via the scribbled slips of paper you use at Nitehawk, Alamo and Syndicated. To use the restroom you must go up the escalator and through the Tuck Room restaurant, which services the theater. It’s hard to say what was more distracting: the pulsing beat of the Tuck music or the translucent stall doors in the ladies room through which you could see the shadowy forms of fellow moviegoers, possibly looking for the absent toilet paper.