James Mazzio makes food a featured attraction at Neighborhood Flix.
James Mazzio makes food a featured attraction at Neighborhood Flix.
Mark Manger

Neighborhood Flix Cafe & Cinema

Neighborhood Flix Cinema & Cafe, which opened in November in the Lowenstein project, is a combination movie theater and cafe with a menu gleefully designed by gallivanting knife-for-hire James Mazzio and a full bar, a place where a man willing to lay down the coin can drink his way through an art-house film without having to go through the trouble of smuggling in a hip flask full of Bulleit bourbon and taking surreptitious pulls at it in the back row like some kinda miserable, secret drunk.

That's once you understand the system, though. When Laura and I pulled up the Neighborhood Flix website to plan a Friday night out, we found very little to explain the concept, how the complicated interplay of dinner-and-a-movie can be squished into a single event. We trusted that employees would be able to explain this once we were actually on the premises, but this turned out to be an unwise assumption. Entering via the elevator that leads down from the parking garage, we already felt a little seasick and disoriented from the curves, the curling counters, the sleek and modern flow of the space — all chrome, laminate, composite and leather. It looked urban, contemporary, but also confusing with its profusion of counters and registers and whatnot. Were it a normal restaurant, I'd say it was cold, but the movie posters, the flat-screen TVs and the constantly milling and shifting crowds of waitstaff and customers made it seem warmer, and less like a leftover set from Logan's Run, with that bland, smooth and affectless bold-futura skein over everything.

Still, even after five months of operation, several of the staffers were unable to give coherent advice about whether we should eat first in the Flix Cafe and then get our tickets, or get our tickets and find seats in the theater, then have a drink at the bar followed by dinner in our seats, or what. Asking one of them how the whole dinner-and-a-movie process was supposed to happen was kind of like asking a six-year-old to explain how a television works: There were a lot of hand gestures, a lot of puzzled pauses and, at one point, I think magical elves were involved.

Laura and I finally came to the conclusion that we were so early for our chosen film that no harm could come from getting a snack and ten or twelve drinks in the cafe before any other decisions were made, so we took a table in the middle of the room. From where we sat, I listened to grown men in turtlenecks sip their wine and use words like "oeuvre" and "mise-en-scène" without any trace of irony, watched a couple feed each other hunks of meatloaf and loudly discuss their sex life in disturbing detail, and finally turned my attention to Humphrey Bogart scowling and huffing his way through the middle scenes of The African Queen (showing soundlessly on the flat-screens to the accompaniment of oddly appropriate, synth-heavy art rock playing over the cafe's P.A.) while Laura quizzed two or three more scampering busboys and harried waitresses. Finally, she found a helpful one.

"We have about an hour and a half before the movie starts," Laura explained. "Should we order and eat now, or what?"

"Oh, sure," said the waitress. "You've got plenty of time. This is a slow night. What can I get for you?"

Drinks. Several. Quickly. Also, a curried chicken salad sandwich and a fat cheese-and-jalapeño elk-meat bratwurst smeared with cream cheese and topped with onions caramelized in Coca-Cola. Not exactly movie food, but if anyone came up to me and started talking about someone's oeuvre or the unusual places he'd put his penis, I figured I could just breathe on him and he'd go away.

This waitress was right: The food came in less than eight minutes, and the drinks came even faster. Discussion around us aside, the Flix Cafe is surprisingly comfortable for a restaurant plunked down in the lobby of a movie theater (which itself was constructed in an old theatrical venue), so Laura and I lingered over our grub, put away a couple Fat Tires and Tecates and got into an argument about the movie Red Dawn, about the oeuvre of director John Milius and which of the two girls I would've stuck my penis in had I been in C. Tommy Howell's shoes. It might not have been the most insightful of film discussions, but what can I say? I was inspired by the surroundings.

For the record, it would've been Lea Thompson.

With the help of this same waitress, we put in an order for another round of food and drinks to enjoy during the movie — more Tecate, a bucket of popcorn, more Fat Tire, a quote/unquote chicken pot pie with a puff-pastry top and garlic mashed potatoes, and a bowl of the "adult" mac-and-cheese with conchiglie pasta, toasted, crushed walnuts and a Gorgonzola cream sauce. A word of warning: Before you attempt to eat this dish in the dark, let it cool and congeal some. Otherwise, it's soupy, hot as lava and will unerringly drip on your crotch. But give it ten minutes to rest, and it's both delicious and far less likely to cause horrible genital scarring.

It was certainly more enjoyable than the movie.

I'd been looking forward to seeing There Will Be Blood. It had been nominated for about a hundred Academy Awards, and my more serious film-nerd friends talked about it like it was a singular work of staggering genius that would shape the way Hollywood made movies for decades — the Citizen Kane of their generation, and on and on like that. But I can sum up the entire movie in two lines: Daniel Day-Lewis begins as a miserable bastard with a fondness for silver and unusual facial hair. Daniel Day-Lewis ends as a miserable, drunken bastard with a fondness for oil and unusual facial hair. There is precisely one reason for seeing this movie, and that is to see Daniel Day-Lewis play a miserable, drunken bastard with unusual facial hair. There's an even bigger reason not to bother: You're going to spend two and a half hours watching Daniel Day-Lewis play a miserable, drunken bastard and, after about the first half-hour, the only thing that's going to change about him is the unusual facial hair.

When we returned to Neighborhood Flix two nights later, Laura and I knew what we were doing. We arrived with barely ten minutes to spare before the start of the movie, so we walked right up to one counter to buy our tickets, then made straight for a second counter where you place orders for in-theater dining (altogether avoiding the cafe, which, even on a Sunday, was doing a fairly brisk trade).

Once you understand the system here, it seems rather ingenious, even smart. You put in your order — for full meals or more traditional movie snacks — and pay, then are given a pager. You move on to the bar, secure your cocktails and continue on into the theater. In a surprisingly short amount of time, the pager will go off like a loud vibrator accidentally switched on in mixed company, sending you to yet another counter (this one in front of the kitchen and directly outside the theater entrances), where you will find your food waiting on inventive, custom-designed plastic trays loaded with disposable silverware. You take what's yours, resist the temptation to pilfer someone else's unguarded cheeseburger, return to your seat and proceed to stuff your face with Vietnamese vegetable egg rolls, Indonesian curry, New Orleans-style gumbo and carrot cake.

Most people who come to Neighborhood Flix appear to have the system down. The smart ones grab their seats, order their food, buy doubles at the bar, get paged during the previews and are safely back in those seats before the feature begins, plugging their trays into the cup-holders in the fold-down arms of the seats to create small, adjustable tables. The really smart ones will have known to grab their seats low on the riser and on the side nearest the door, so if they're suddenly seized by the urge for a second bucket of popcorn, some lamb stew or a third vodka tonic during the picture, their departure won't disturb anyone. And while Friday night must have been date night for loudmouths, amateurs and the sexually adventurous, Sunday was obviously for the pros. Needless to say, my second night at Neighborhood Flix was a far more pleasant experience all around.

For starters, Laura and I ate a lot better this time, essentially walling ourselves off behind a battlement of beers; popcorn (which, owing to the fact that I'd been allowed to add my own butter, was too buttery); a nice, springy pasta of pesto, sundried tomatoes and bite-sized pieces of grilled Red Bird chicken; and an enormous basket of fantastic fries. They were sweet potato (which I love), cut thin, perfectly blanched and then fried for that ideal crispy surface. They came sprinkled with sesame seeds and drizzled with a sweet ginger syrup that I would have drunk as a shot if only the bartender would have sold it to me.

The movie was also much better. In Bruges is a seriously dark comedy about two hit men (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) sent to chill out in the medieval city of Bruges by their boss, Harry (played by an even-more-skeletal-than-usual Ralph Fiennes), after a botched assassination attempt on a priest in Dublin. It's full of midgets, weirdness, drug-abuse gunfights and jokes about Belgium. It's also shorter than There Will Be Blood by about 98 and a half hours. All told, it was a wonderful movie-watching experience, made even more wonderful by the fact that I could watch Farrell, cranked up on booger sugar and discussing the coming race war with three prostitutes and a midget, while dining on a menu carefully designed by Mazzio for easy consumption in the dark (once those sauces cool, anyway).

The partners behind Neighborhood Flix — locals Jimmie Lee Smith, Michelle Dorant and Melodie Gaul — took a big, expensive risk in trying to meld upscale cuisine and movies together for a singular experience. But when the system works, it really works. All they needed was a beautiful, multimillion-dollar location, a willing and polite crowd, a talented chef with a head for strange culinary diversions, a super-fast galley crew who can bang out a dozen meals in the time it takes a preview reel to run, and a restaurant critic easily amused by fancy-pants french fries, macaroni and cheese, and movies about Irish hit men and midgets.


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