For years a trip to the cinema has been marked by the synthetic buttery smell of popcorn, for which cinema-goers queue for in the hundreds. But in an increasing number of places, the aroma of more upmarket fare is wafting in, while guests enjoy a personal touch by ordering from their seats.
This month saw the launch of The Lounge, at the Odeon in the Whiteleys Shopping Centre in London. The venue styles itself as a boutique cinema experience (no more than 50 seats per screen), where food and drinks are brought to your business class-like reclining seats.
With an emphasis on fine dining, the consultant chef Rowley Leigh and his team hope that The Lounge takes the traditional concept of "dinner and a movie" to the next level.
Purists might argue that trying to enjoy fine dining while focusing a on a plot might be sensory overload. But Leigh put together the menu conscious that it would be eaten in the dark, often with just one hand and among an audience that expects others to be silent while the film is playing.
"You have to tread carefully," he says. "It is not difficult to eat risotto, we're not doing anything you need to concentrate on. Everything is texturally very simple. And obviously spaghetti or soup would be difficult."
The food itself is mix of classic cinema fare, fresh popcorn and hot dogs, as well as dishes such as prawn risotto and venison chilli with beans. The menu is broken down into categories: "finger" (to be eaten by hand), "fork" and "spoon" – with no-holds-barred desserts such as banana split with Valrhona chocolate and sticky toffee pudding with custard.
Leigh, who runs the acclaimed Le Cafe Anglais elsewhere in the complex, had been in discussions with Odeon for a while about a project before they came up with The Lounge, which was inspired by other similar venues in Australia and the US. "It's not a restaurant with a cinema attached, it's a cinema where you can get good food, wines and cocktails," he says. "Eating in a cinema is nothing radical, eating something decent, however, is."
The Lounge is one of a number of places around the country that are increasing their food offerings and thus widening the yawning gulf between independent cinemas and screening rooms and the nation's multiplexes.
Barnsley House, a hotel in the Cotswolds countryside, has a long-established dining-and-cinema experience. Since it launched last October, its Sunday-night film club has been fully booked every week. And for Oscar night this year they are serving up a film-lover's and foodie's fantasy. After a supper of the Italian classic dish vincisgrassi or some of the Dover sole and produce from the vegetable garden, guests are taken to the screening room for an 11pm show of the The French Connection. A 1am champagne and canapé session follows before guests go in for The King's Speech, which is followed by a 3am bacon butties blow-out while they watch who has won what.
The venue's general manager, Michele Mella, says the setting is important for customers and the hotel aims to create a romantic setting with the pink leather double seats. "People can come here and enjoy good food and a movie, in a much more refined environment than at a big cinema," he says. "We like to think that guests here are never too far from a good plate of food."
Elsewhere, similar trends are happening. A little further south, The Beckford Arms in Tisbury, Wiltshire, holds a weekly movie night on Sundays, where guests sit on big sofas and indulge in comfort foods such as fish or shepherd's pie.
The Sir Thomas Hotel in Liverpool holds Chick Flick Thursdays, where for £14.95 guests receive a cocktail and a three-course meal to eat while watching the film.
Roxy Bar and Screen at Borough, in London, aims to "bring together cutting-edge digital screenings with high quality drinks and food". Sofas and tables can be booked and groups can order from a menu where starters range from seared scallops to pulled pork and mains from coq au vin to smoked paprika and chilli pork belly – which can be eaten next week in front of either The Guard or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Perhaps pushing the concept of dinner and a movie the furthest, however, is the recently launched Secret Restaurant. The people behind the wildly popular Secret Cinema have teamed up with Fergus Henderson's London restaurant St John to offer diners and viewers an even fuller evening's experience.
Last week's screening of The Third Man saw the hugely ambitious plan of "building an entire restaurant in the heart of the film". Guests came in fancy dress to an undisclosed location in Clerkenwell, London, and were led into a secret restaurant setting that had been created in design, menu and fellow guests to be like the sort of secret venue one might find in post-war Vienna.
Guests could choose from paprika beef and kidney pie with braised red cabbage to wild rabbit with bacon and white beans. "We've been doing food at our other events," the event's founder Fabien Riggall says. "We always try to create a menu around the film and this is a step further."
Riggall says they hope to create a totally immersive experience. "What's different is that from the moment you book your table, you're in that world. The number you call puts you through to someone in character."
At the first event, visitors were met by a character and led into the venue, a pianist would be playing, other characters would offer guests "black market goods", while midway through dinner a "drunk Russian colonel" would stand up and start singing.
Riggall believes that the public is increasingly looking for new ways of going out, away from a night at "a multiplex and a chain restaurant".
He adds: "It's essentially the time of hyper-information. We are completely led by technology. And by not telling anyone anything, it brings people together to talk more, be more communal, more social."
Plus, the personal touch of the adventure only serves to heighten the experience."We want to recreate that feeling of Henry in Goodfellas, where he's walking through the back of the club and through the kitchens," Riggall says. "We want to make you feel that you're not just another customer."