There is nothing that defines the quintessential date night like the phrase “dinner and a movie.” Across the First Coast, independently owned movie theaters are tucked in historic buildings, some of which harken back to the early days of cinema. The intimate ambiance of these spaces allow for a truly unique experience while you dine. From St. Augustine to San Marco to Riverside, no matter what part of town you live in, dinner and a movie can be more than a trip to the mall. Community-driven and locally owned, supporting these cinemas keeps dollars here on the First Coast and makes for a wonderful night on the town.
Your first impression of the dinner and movie experience that awaits you upon entering the Sun-Ray Cinema in Riverside’s 5 Points neighborhood is a good-natured hand-written sign scrawled across a piece of paper on the front door: “Please no outside food or drinks. (You don’t need it) We sell some high quality stuffs!” Friendly colloquial request aside, you know you’re in for a unique cinematic and dining adventure.
Swing open the door, and floor-to-ceiling murals of Florida movie monsters painted by local artist Shaun Thurston flank the entrance hall and deserve a pause of admiration. Beyond, throngs of moviegoers, tickets in hand, cluster around the concession stand and bar, where a poster-sized menu juxtaposed beside the dessert case lists a full lineup of tempting film foods.
“We offer streamlined, versatile comfort food,” co-owner Shana Massett says.
Indeed, popcorn and candy are not the only items playing starring roles at the concession stands at Sun-Ray Cinema and Corazon Cinema and Cafe in St. Augustine. These indie theaters and historic neighborhood landmarks are setting the stage for a rewarding cinematic event by giving proper billing to the food. The result is an intellectually stimulating and sensory culinary experience that you just can’t recreate by renting a Netflix movie from the couch.
Entrepreneurs Shana and Tim Massett took ownership of Sun-Ray Cinema in late 2011 and have poured time and money into reinvigorating the establishment that first opened in 1927 as the Riverside Theater. The cinema has two theaters—the larger 160-seat retro space that plays 35 mm titles on a screen the size of an in-ground rectangular pool, and a smaller, digitized 45-seat auditorium with plush high-back seats. (Plans call for similar upgrades in the larger theater).
The husband-wife duo took particular care in crafting an approachable and affordable menu that channels their theme of authenticity. Variations of pizza, sandwiches, shakes (including a boozy beer shake made with Intuition Ale Works’ King Street Stout), vegan and beef hot dogs, fountain and bottled sodas, Bold Bean coffee, finger foods and nachos all are part of the roster.
“And everything on the menu can easily be veganized,” Shana says. “Just the other day, we had someone order nachos and a vanilla shake, and their date ordered vegan nachos and a vegan vanilla shake.”
Items range from $3 for a small popcorn on up to $12 for a meaty pizza.
Seven different pizza specials are available, though you can customize your own with a myriad of toppings for an additional charge. The Black Lagoon Supreme features a soft, chewy crust topped with sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, garlic and olives. The Zaat, named for a B-Movie monster, is embellished with kimchi, a fried egg and spirulina. Choose either mozzarella cheese or rinotta, a vegan queso, to complement the toppings. While the 9-inch pizzas are ample enough to share, they certainly are tasty enough to consume entirely on your own.
Sandwiches also come in a variety of enticing combinations, from the Wildly Inauthentic Cuban, with pulled pork, ham, sweet pickles and Swiss cheese, to The People’s BBQ Tofu Bahn Mi, an arrangement of tofu marinated in Intuition Left Coast Ale, topped with pickled veggies and bookended between a Village Bread Co. hoagie roll.
A variety of finger foods—from fried pickles or swamp fries smothered with kimchi, egg, marinara, spirulina and queso—are ideal for munching on throughout the flick.
A chalkboard hanging above the glass-encased dessert display announces the selections for six varietals of wine, six draft beers, a selection of a dozen bottles, cans or beers by the bucket.
Enticing options abound, but do not overlook the desserts, made from scratch in-house. The “twankie,” a vegan version of the Twinkie, tastes like a soft cupcake, and is worth ordering one for the movie and at least one to go.
Once you’ve made your selection, place your order at the concession stand. You’ll receive a pager that will notify you when the food is ready. Make sure the pager is placed visibly on the wooden table in front of your theater seats, so that the server can see your pager emitting a blue glow in the dark theater.
In a similar thread, the Corazon Cinema and Cafe in downtown St. Augustine is winning over the corazon, or heart, of patrons that prioritize art, food and culture.
“We’re an art house, with the food and films as our primary focus,” co-owner Karla Wagner says.
Karla and her husband, Bob, have spent the last couple years renovating the 6,500 square-foot brick building that dates back to 1880. Plaster and dry wall were stripped away to expose the building’s original brick walls. Small, medium and large theaters offer an array of seating. Low-slung chairs encircle intimate bistro tables. Longer plank-sized tables supported with whiskey barrels and surrounded with stools accommodate larger parties, with plenty of room for food and adult beverages. Each theater’s ambience invites you to settle in for a foreign film, documentary, environmental flick or even weekly Trivia Night.
Chefs Joe and Tammy Abel, formerly of Cheese Wheel & Sandwich Board, are at the helm of the cinema’s kitchen, dishing up an extensive list of sandwiches (named after famous actors and actresses), wraps, French bread pizza, salad and a cheese platter.
The majority of the items on the menu are made fresh daily. The Sophia Loren—a hearty three-meat pileup of salami, ham and pepperoni combined with American cheese, provolone, lettuce, onion, banana peppers and Italian dressing—is among the top sellers. Even meat lovers may find themselves partial to Cate Blanchett, a tossup of veggies with mayo, Italian dressing and sprouts.
Corazon’s blockbuster, however, is its chicken salad sandwich, named for its two chef creators, Joe and Tammy. The hand-chopped chicken integrates with relish, celery, lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, Italian dressing and the diner’s choice of cheese.
“We’re famous for our chicken salad in this town,” Joe says.
Sandwiches come with either white, wheat, 12-grain, Texas toast, hoagie or rye bread and are hand-pressed to melt the cheese and meld ingredients together.
Prices average around $7.50. A variety of spinach and flour wraps and salads with meats, cheeses and veggies also are on hand.
Each sandwich or wrap comes with chips, homemade coleslaw, macaroni and cheese or potato salad. If you like a little heat to complement your main, go with the potato salad, a mashup of yellow mustard, salt, pepper, pimento and pickles.
Arrive early, and you can eat and drink at the bar. Otherwise, if you’re planning to stock up on food and drink for the film, be sure to save enough room in your hand for a serving of popcorn.
“We make it with coconut oil,” Wagner says. “It’s so delicious, it doesn’t even need butter. People absolutely love it.”