The rise of gourmet cinema

WE settled into our indecently capacious seats, placed our drinks on the sidetables and leaned back, sighing with satisfaction. This was certainly the First Class cabin of cinemas: leg room enough for a couple of giants; an array of buttons for seat adjustment and waiter-summoning and, of course, a substantial food menu masterminded by one of the UK’s best chefs: Rowley Leigh, of the next-door Café Anglais. The film was Roman Polanski’s Carnage, but I was more taken by the delivery of champagne cocktails during trailers, the power vested in me to order a glass or three of Mendoza Malbec and the array of nibbles.

There’s no doubt about it: luxury cinema that gives you dinner and a movie in one (or at least, very posh snacks, cocktails and a movie in one) is where the upwardly mobile, trendy dating set are headed. Odeon is leading the charge with the Lounge; meanwhile, its Swiss Cottage cinema, an eyesore of a 1930s building if ever there was one, has just completed a massive overhaul. As well as adding an Imax screen, it has turned the formerly boarded up Screen Six into a bar serving Dom Perignon and salmon blinis.

Independent cinema groups were the first to cash in on our desire to wine and dine (as opposed to just scoff), reclined on two-seater sofas. The Everyman cinemas led the way with snazzy sofas, huge seats and inflated prices (£12 for the absolute cheapest, non-member seats). They also have waiter service in some screens (nibbles and drinks, as opposed to dinner). At the Electric in Notting Hill (one of the UK's oldest working cinemas), movie-goers queue up at an in-cinema bar for spinach and feta tart, pork belly and pinot noir before settling into big red armchair-style seats in an Edwardian Baroque room. At the Ritzy in Brixton, several buzzing bars and eateries provide gourmet snacks and good beer and wine to take into your film: nightlife blends seamlessly with move-watching. The Firmdale Group of hotels, which owns the Haymarket, Soho, Covent Garden and Charlotte Street hotels in London and The Crosby Street Hotel in New York, hosts “cinema clubs” where you can eat the likes of Mediterranean vegetables and spiced cous cous with haloumi before watching a movie in a plush red seats. Perhaps the trendiest of the lot is the Aubin Cinema at Shoreditch House, though you’ll have to content yourself with honeycomb, wasabi peas and Prosecco rather than a three-course meal.

The Lounge at Whiteley’s ups the ante, though: when it comes to London’s love affair with gastro-cinema, it is the highest-profile launch by far. After all, Rowleigh Leigh is a big deal, and here’s how he wants your night to go.

First you should stop off in the lounge bar – a purply cocoon of big sofas and drinks tables (the kind of place Austin Powers might be found). I took very kindly to The French, a version of the champagne cocktail, finding the house Reynier Brut a bit acidic (but at £10, you can’t really complain). Cocktail lovers might also like the Odeon: Courvoisier cognac stirred over ice with a spiced port reduction and orange bitters.

Once through and in your thrones (don’t expect to canoodle: the space between seats is too great), you can start having fun with the call button. Somehow, the quiet delivery of food and drink doesn’t interfere or disrupt – nor was I aware of slurping noises, so go forth shamelessly.

The menu is divided into Finger, Fork and Spoon: cute though this is, the food is far from exquisite and certainly not of the calibre you can get next door at the Café Anglais. From Finger, we sampled salsify fritters with aioli and fried squid – both a bit greasy and rubbery. I also had some fairly dismal tuna nigiri – tiny strips of fish on big badly cooked wads of rice. More enticing was hot dog with onions, popcorn and a lemon grass and ginger ice cream soda. From Fork we tried venison chilli – hearty though not instantly reminiscent of deer. Butternut squash risotto with sage and parmesan might have been a good way to go. Or fish and chips, though still more batter didn’t appeal. We were full up but dessert can be arranged: sticky toffee pudding; a version of afternoon tea; banana split.

The Lounge is a brilliant place for a date and has set the bar high in the world of gastronomic cinema-going. Perhaps too high: it’s the drinks, the comfort and the idea of it all that trumps any culinary pretension, much like on a plane. As I said: this is the first class cabin of cinemas, not necessarily the Michelin-starred of them. Tickets £18 excluding food and drink. ODEON Whiteleys – The Lounge, Whiteleys of Bayswater, W2 4YL. To book: call 0871 22 44 007 or go to www.odeon.co.uk/thelounge.

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