A few years ago, Hampden's Rotunda was a nice divey way to spend an evening without breaking the bank. The underground mall resembled a kind of post-apocalyptic fallout bunker with a cozy cluttered comic book shop and a three-screen movie theater that offered cheap tickets on Tuesday nights. In the name of progress, the old stores have since closed or moved and the shopping center has been reinvented.
The redesigned Rotunda swaps out its distinct "shopping mall from 'Dawn of the Dead'" aesthetic for something more like the gleaming white expanse of the future city of "Logan's Run." It's a little prettier, admittedly, but I can't imagine who'd want to live in what its website describes as "Baltimore's premier mixed use community"—a combination upscale housing complex ("379 luxury apartments") and retail space ("Everyday conveniences including grocery and fitness"). The jewel of the new development is CinéBistro, Baltimore's first and currently only dine-in movie theater.
Dine-in theaters are a relatively new phenomena and one that's frankly long overdue. Theater chains like Regal and AMC have struggled in the face of the hard fact that fewer people are seeing movies these days, given a ton of different factors including rising ticket prices and on-demand streaming. Giving moviegoers reserved seating in a reclining comfy chair and the option to order food nicer than a reheated frozen pizza or "Beavis and Butthead"-style nachos is a great way to justify charging $15.75 per ticket.
CinéBistro's greatest strength is that it leans hard into offering a true movie watching experience, something large chains have long since given up on. When we arrived, the courteous and well-dressed staff welcomed us and the smiling woman taking my ticket jokingly warned me to hide a Prince pin on my jacket or one of the ushers would try to steal it from me. It's a relaxing atmosphere more akin to a show at The Hippodrome than anything else. There's even a central bar away from the screening rooms to accommodate pre- or post-movie cocktails. Parents beware: You gotta be 21 or older to see a movie here.
CinéBistro offers a range of appetizers, main dishes, sides, snacks, and cocktails—everything from popcorn to Cobb salad to crab cakes to four different varieties of steak. It's way too wide an array. Reading over the massive laminated menu was overwhelming and, given that all orders have to go in before showtime, our waitress was understandably impatient while my friend and I decided on our orders. What's the point in offering over 40 (40!) different wine options for Joe and Jane Moviewatcher to read through before a showing of "Beauty and the Beast" if there's no time to read through the list?
We decided to go whole hog with it in order to get a nice cross-section of what CinéBistro offers. We started with a drink off the theater's special "The Fast and the Furious"-themed cocktail list. "The Green Light" was a fittingly neon green pseudo-margarita made with Patron Silver tequila, Midori, limejuice, green honey syrup, and watermelon puree. I'm a sucker for movie-themed beer and cocktail lists, although not offering a bottled Corona (long established in the "Fast" films as Dominic Toretto's drink of choice) felt like a missed opportunity. As for the cocktail, it was distinctly sour and maybe a tad heavy on the liquor but you likely want to be a little buzzed watching The Rock chase down Jason Statham in "The Fate Of The Furious" anyway.
Appetizer-wise, we opted for an order of the gouda croquettes ($8), a plate of three "wagyu" beef sliders topped with bacon jam and melted butterkäse cheese ($14), some Korean BBQ wings ($11.50), and a bowl of regular-ass popcorn ($8 with free refills). Essentially fried cheese, the croquettes were good if kind of heavy. The wings, which come with mango-mint dipping sauce and kimchi, had a nice sticky heat to them. Sidenote: Wings are a pretty crucial litmus test for any standard restaurant's abilities. If you eat somewhere and the wings are bad, something's gone horribly wrong.
My friend had the sliders largely to himself and remarked that they were perfectly fine, although we had doubts that the "wagyu" patties tasted especially better than average ground beef.
For myself, I ordered the pan-seared salmon ($22.50) off the "Features" menu as well as the red velvet lava cake ($9). I'll be honest, a salmon filet on top of mashed potatoes, collard greens, and shrimp is a logistical nightmare for eating in the dark. The filet and shrimp were decent, on par with what you'd get for a similar price from an Applebee's or Chili's. Unfortunately, the claustrophobic stacked placement of meat and vegetable on the plate made it akin to eating a $20 KFC Famous Bowl.
The lava cake was easily the most disappointing menu item I tried. Topped with a big chewy toasted marshmallow and accompanied by a cream cheese semifreddo, it looks great but tastes chewy and flavorless. Again, not something you'd maybe typically order to eat while watching a movie but this was the only plate we tried that was unacceptably bad.
And of all the things we ate, the popcorn was my favorite. Rightly buttery and salty in the way that only movie theater popcorn can be, I shoved handfuls of it in my mouth as Vin Diesel and Charlize Theron philosophically debated the nature of good versus evil. Honestly, is there anything better or more pure than good popcorn?
We had the distinct problem of ordering so much food that our server had a hard time fitting everything in front of us. Most customers won't run into this issue, but it's a mark against CinéBistro that they don't really stagger large orders or even let you order during the film. Our food and drinks arrived during the pre-movie trailers and we found ourselves stuck with empty plates and glasses in front us for most of the film. While I appreciate that they don't want customers to deal with waiters stumbling back and forth with plates during the movie, theaters like the nationwide Alamo Drafthouse or Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema do let you order before and during the film (even dropping off/collecting your check just before it ends) and it makes a difference.
CinéBistro opened a scant two months ago and I hope they continue to tweak both the menu and how they serve. Changes like a streamlined menu focusing on core house specialties and a larger window of time to order would go a long way toward making it a better experience, which is something the staff genuinely seemed to care about. Avid cinema-goers will find their movie-watching dollar goes further at the Landmark Harbor East or The Charles, but there are worse ways to spend a Friday night than at the new Rotunda's major attraction to see "The Fate Of The Furious" and navigate a sloppy plate of salmon.