This isn't the first time, in the course of eating out for this column, that I've found myself spectating while a couple nearby has a full-blown, marriage-threatening row. But it's certainly the first time I've booked a ticket specifically to do so. This week's assignment sees me braving the new frontier of modern dining. I'm having supper in a luxury cinema, watching a Polanski movie from a huge leather seat while eating venison chilli and sipping a mojito. This is possibly the most middle-class thing I've ever done in my life.
A new venture from Odeon cinemas, now premiering at Whiteleys, a shopping centre in west London, this in-movie fine-dining concept is apparently the first of its kind in Europe. We're not just talking snacks here, but proper, restaurant-quality food, from a menu devised by the estimable Rowley Leigh of Le Café Anglais. The launch a few weeks back attracted loads of publicity. So much, in fact, that I dismissed it as a PR stunt.
But it's clear from the scale of the operation and the enthusiasm of all involved that this is a real... thing. They really think people will want to eat a proper meal while watching the latest blockbuster in club-class comfort. A whole floor above the existing Odeon has been Lounge-ified into an enormous bar and five luxury cinemas, with its own purpose-built kitchen and head chef .
Still dazed at having paid £18 each for our tickets to Polanski's Carnage, rather than the £10.50 it would have cost to watch it downstairs, we were shown up to the Lounge by a smiling concierge. The bar area is state-of-the-art hotel design circa 2005; acres of low, curvy leather sofas arranged around a serious-looking stand-alone bar. Black-clad waiters bustle about, taking coats, bringing menus, and generally love-bombing everyone. This must be what it feels like to be Harvey Weinstein attending a test screening.
Each of the five screens, or lounges, offers a different movie, and you don't have to sit through any ads, just trailers; an excellent touch – I do prefer my movies off the bone. But be warned – the £18 ticket only gets you into the film. Food and drink are charged extra; a decently-made mojito costs £8.50, and main courses are £8 to £14.50.
Rowley Leigh's short menu, divided into Finger, Fork and Spoon sections, is surprisingly varied, and in the case of dishes such as red mullet and prawn risotto, or chicken and goat's cheese mousse with hazelnut toast, rather ambitious. Junk food tradition is embraced, in the form of fish and chips, a burger, a banana split, and even 'hot dog, popcorn and ice-cream soda' which I initially took to be some clever gastronomic jeu d'esprit, but which is actually just what it says it is.
A few minutes before our film started, we were shown to our seats. And what seats. These are big. Really big. Vast, matte-leather thrones, with infinite leg room and an arm-mounted control panel which allows you to summon a waiter. The front-of-screen staff slip around with remarkable discretion. After a while, you hardly notice the weirdness of someone nearby describing the floral quality of a Gewurztraminer while you're trying to concentrate on the trailer for 21 Jump Street.
Our food arrived surprisingly quickly, and was mainly pretty good, served on nifty, pivoting trays. I'm going to hurry through this bit, as those of you who have seen, or read about, Carnage can probably anticipate what's going to happen next. So, from the Finger section, deep-fried squid, cut into chewy strips so large they needed their own wrangler, and some authentic tasting tuna sushi, made with dangerously collapsible rice which dropped into the soy sauce with a splash. Neither dish, in other words, ideal for eating in the dark.
Venison chilli, served in a puffy taco basket, had a rich, almost chocolatey, depth of flavour, and nearly all of it made the journey successfully into my mouth (dry-cleaning bills are an additional cost to be factored in). Harry's 'Royale' – a fillet steak, served burger-style in an airy, sesame-coated bun – was a much more sensible choice.
Less sensible, under the circumstances, was our film selection. Carnage is a comedy of manners about two quarrelling middle-class couples who self-medicate through alcohol, and confirm their own sense of superiority by parading their sophisticated food choices. (Imagine that.) We were enjoying it, right up until the throwing-up sequence, surely one of the most realistic ever committed to film.
Mercifully, Kate Winslet erupted between our main courses and our puddings, but it did rather take the edge off the chocolate ganache cake. They should have posted a warning; contains scenes of extreme vomiting and some graphic cleaning-up sequences.
That low point aside, we found our Odeon Lounge experience stupidly enjoyable. To call it fine dining is a stretch, but it's certainly a fine – and different – night out. Just remember to do a bit of research on the film before you book.
The Lounge, Odeon Whiteleys, Queensway, London W2 (online bookings only; see odeon.co.uk/thelounge)
Around £55 a head for three courses, including wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Meals and reels
Enjoy your film with a selection of delicious nibbles ranging from fish and chips with mushy peas to tiger prawns in chilli.
191 Portobello Road, London W11 (020-7908 9696)
This vegetarian, cinema-restaurant complex boasts a wide selection of pizzas – try the Toscana topped with roasted red peppers, goat's cheese and pine kernels.
Compston Road, Ambleside, Cumbria (01539 433845)
Savour dishes such as Thai beef Penang or lentil and squash dhansak before you head upstairs to enjoy the film screening at this popular Bristol complex.
Habourside, Bristol (0117 927 5100)