NEW YORK – More than a decade ago, Matthew Viragh was a Texan with a dream. He wanted to serve moviegoers booze and prepared food as they sat in their seats. In Brooklyn. But he had a state Prohibition-era liquor ban to contend with first.
Viragh, who left advertising for the theater business, hired an Albany lobbyist. The lobbyist rounded up some friendly lawmakers, and Nitehawk Cinema got its wish in 2011, becoming New York State's first legal dine-in theater. Then, Viragh began creating cocktail and food selections themed to the movies he was offering.
“It was a long shot,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “I didn’t quite expect it to happen, so we were prepared to operate how we initially set it up, where we would have a restaurant and bar in the front area. It certainly has created opportunities for other theaters, too, in the city.”
With two Brooklyn locations now and a loyal following, Viragh has extended his dream to a cookbook, “Nitehawk Cinema Presents,” offering fan-favorite recipes and cocktails adapted for home. He and his team of cinephiles, chefs and mixologists throw in bits of film history, too.
There's “The Dude Abides,” a coffee-infused, vodka-and-egg-white concoction with stout, ancho chile, walnut and salted honey syrup, in homage to the White Russians that Jeff Bridges' character downed like Kool-Aid (“Jesus, you mix a hell of a Caucasian, Jackie”).
“Try the Veal, It's the Best in the City” contains veal, new potatoes, olives and sliced blood orange in honor of “The Godfather.” In the classic film trilogy, oranges can be seen in scenes involving deeply meaningful death. The name of the veal dish is based on a line uttered by the character Virgil Sollozzo before Al Pacino's Michael Corleone shoots him to death, though the Nitehawk book attributes the famous words to corrupt police Capt. Mark McCluskey. He, too, was executed in the restaurant scene.
The glossy cookbook is part schtick, like the cocktail “Red Rum,” a mix of rum and hibiscus syrup for “The Shining” (for the uninitiated, “redrum” is murder spelled backward), and part literal movie reference, like the “Cup O' Pizza” from “The Jerk.”
Viragh was inspired by Alamo Drafthouse, a dine-in theater chain with liquor and beer service and an increasing presence now in New York. It was founded in Austin, Texas, where the Fort Worth native went to college.
“After school, I moved up to New York to pursue some other things and always missed that sort of experience,” he said. “There wasn’t anything like that up here and I thought it would be a wonderful addition to the New York film and culinary scene.”
To figure out how to do that, Viragh headed to Portsmouth, Virginia, and spent time at The Commodore Theatre, a restored Art Deco cinema with a fine dining restaurant in the main auditorium.
“The owner, Fred Schoenfeld, was nice enough to take me in and let me spend the summer down there. He gave me room and board, and I basically learned all the ins and outs of running a dine-in theater,” Viragh said. “I knew that I could do this.”
Viragh lives in an apartment atop his original location in the Williamsburg neighborhood with his wife and two children. Combined, his theaters have 10 screens and 836 seats. He renovated a historic cinema for his second location, the old Sanders theater that opened in 1928 just off Prospect Park. Viragh preserved touches from the past, including marble stairs hidden beneath carpeting.
Special feasts and themed dishes and drinks at Nitehawk come and go with the first-run, arthouse and classic films he shows, but a few menu items are permanent by popular demand. Some are included in the cookbook, like the “Leatherface Jerky” with Thai chili, garlic and soy sauce, an ode to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Viragh envisions his book used by home chefs for both movie-themed parties or quiet, romantic evenings of “Nitehawk and chill.”
He and key members of his team worked on the project during the most dire isolation during the pandemic, when the theaters closed for a year and Viragh was forced to furlough many on staff. The book, with well over 100 recipes, was published in early December by The Countryman Press, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company.
“We were working on this book before the pandemic, but it was slow going. We had, obviously, a lot more time on our hands and it exploded into something even larger than we imagined. That was the only silver lining of the closure,” he said.
The Nitehawks, like other restaurants, served curbside and delivery when permitted during the pandemic. Business has picked up since then and menu specials are back, like a “Shark's Daiquiri” and a “Jet's Manhattan” in celebration of the new “West Side Story.” Special one-off screenings are also back and include the upcoming “Purple Rain," with a helping of fried cheese curds and purple ketchup on offer to celebrate Prince and his native Minnesota.
As for the book, Nitehawk patrons are gobbling it up.
“I didn't have any expectations about the sales of the book at all,” Viragh said. “I'm just pleased we did the book and stayed busy during our closure. It's a celebration of all the talented people who have worked here over the years and what we’ve created together.”
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