Frank and I planned our trip to Sheffield to coincide with the opening of the National Centre for Popular Music, a full-scale Fisher Price activity centre for pop fans, where visitors can re-mix videos, bang drums and generally run amok. To complete a day of infantile regression, we decided to drop in first on Britain's biggest cinema, the 20-screen Virgin Megaplex.
The Megaplex is notable not just for its scale - it boasts the UK's largest screen, and two licensed luxury cinemas with reclining seats and waitress service - but also because it's the home of the Waterfront, the first of a series of in-cinema restaurants to be launched by Virgin, and wholly owned by the company.
Frank and I met at Birmingham station (my Virgin train was only 15 minutes late), and continued the journey by car, arriving in Sheffield via a road lined with steel works. "Whatever the food's like, the cutlery is going to be fantastic," quipped Frank. The Megaplex is situated on the outskirts of town, in the Valley Centretainment complex, a huge leisure development opposite Sheffield Arena which comprises a bowling alley, nightclubs and various mega-restaurants with names like Fatty Arbuckles. As we pulled in to the car park of this enormous fun factory, only the steel-grey skies and gloomy terraced hills on the horizon reminded us that we weren't in some bounteous American leisure-burb.
The Megaplex is arranged over three floors. As well as the 20 screens, there's a milk bar, cafe-bar, video arcade, film memorabilia store and children's play area, all of which struck us as strangely empty, given that it was a wet Sunday afternoon.
Having secured our tickets for the next screening of Antz, we headed for lunch at the Waterfront. It, too, was decidedly underpopulated. Although it's a fish restaurant, the choice of name is peculiar, given that it's nowhere near any water, and the only windows offer a dispiriting view of the car park. Still, the walls are decorated with big blue and green squares, and there's lots of aquatic colours and splishy-splashy paint effects. Designer fish tanks line the walls, containing nothing but jets of uplit bubbles, and I wondered whether they would eventually be filled with fish. "No," the manageress replied briskly. "We thought it would be a little cruel, in a fish restaurant."
The menu majors on traditional fish and chips, but there's also a good selection for more adventurous diners, who can opt for moules et frites or Caribbean chicken with jerk sauce and fried dumplings. The twin-track approach is exemplified in the list of side orders, where wild rice appears alongside baked beans and mushy peas. With main courses at around pounds 8, prices struck me as reasonable.
Having made our first selections, fish cakes and barbecued chicken, we were embarrassed to realise that they both appeared on the children's menu - "for the little squids". This seemed to be taking the childlike fun thing too far, and we hastily reconsidered, although Frank's choice was limited by the fact that he practices a food-combining diet, doesn't drink, and has given up sweet things for Lent. Still, even he couldn't find anything to object to in a wild mushroom soup.
When the dish was laid before him, he commented to our waiter that its hunky croutons of brown bread looked a bit like malt loaf. "It's not malt loaf," the waiter replied, "It doesn't make you go to the toilet as much as malt loaf." After that, it was rather difficult to get up much of an appetite for my Caesar salad, though it was an excellent specimen, served with garlicky croutons and slices of warm barbecued chicken, a snip at an extra pounds 1. Frank's soup was obviously made with fresh stock, and I detected sherry or white wine there, too, but thought better of mentioning it.
The main courses weren't up to the same standard, but were still a lot better than anything you normally find in a cinema. Our waiter had warned me that my spiced tuna steak might be fairly bony, but bones turned out not to be the problem, so much as the dense, dry texture of the fish, and the stinky strip of skin, like masking tape, that enclosed it.
To accompany his stir-fried vegetables with tagliatelli in sun-dried tomato pesto, Frank ordered a side order of mushy peas. "When two worlds collide, eh?", he reflected, surveying his mismatched selection. The vegetables were al dente to the point of being underdone, but he didn't dare mention the fact to our waiter, for fear it might trigger off another of his digestive observations. On the whole, though, Frank was satisfied, and our portions were substantial. It would, we agreed, be a good place for a family outing. "They could provide Virgin balloons for the children which don't last the whole meal," Frank suggested.
Our only quibble was that for an integrated cinema experience, the meal took a little too long to arrive. Ideally, the waiters should enquire when your film starts, then tailor the service accordingly, but as it was, we began to get anxious that we were going to miss the beginning of Antz. To their credit, though, as soon as we told them we were in a rush, the waiters did step up the pace in getting our puddings and coffees, allowing me to bolt down a portion of something called Fat Man's Misery, a sinful confection resembling raw chocolate brownie mix.
When we paid the bill, we found that a special offer meant that the cheaper of our main courses came free, so that the entire meal totalled just pounds 21. "And with one course free - that's what I call a Sheffield Steal!" concluded Frank, in his cheesiest announcer's voice.
Other Megaplexes are opening around the country, and Virgin has plans to build on this experiment in in-cinema dining. On the strength of our visit to the Waterfront, I'd say that, like Antz, the concept has legs.
The Waterfront Restaurant, Virgin Megaplex, Broughton Lane, Sheffield. 0114 244 6345. Open daily, noon-10pm. Disabled access. All major cards.Reuse content