NEW YORK – Over ten years ago, Matthew Viragh was a Texan with a dream. He wanted to serve alcohol to moviegoers and prepare food while they were seated in their seats. In Brooklyn. But first he had an alcohol ban during the state prohibition era.
Viragh, who left advertising for the theater business, hired a lobbyist from Albany. The lobbyist brought together friendly lawmakers, and Nitehawk Cinema got its wish in 2011, becoming New York State’s first legal catering theater. Next, Viragh began to create selections of cocktails and dishes based on the films he was offering.
âIt was a long shot,â he said in a recent interview. âI didn’t really expect that to happen so we were ready to operate as we had originally set up, where we would have a restaurant and bar in the area before. This has certainly created opportunities for other theaters in the city as well. “
Now with two locations in Brooklyn and a loyal following, Viragh extended his dream into a cookbook, “Nitehawk Cinema Presents: Movie-Inspired Menus from Brooklyn’s Dine-In Theater,” featuring fan-favorite recipes and cocktails suitable for the House. He and his team of moviegoers, chefs and mixologists also throw in bits of movie history.
There’s âThe Dude Abides,â a concoction infused with coffee, vodka and egg white with stout, ancho pepper, walnuts and salted honey syrup, in homage to the white Russians as Jeff’s character. Bridges shot like Kool-Aid (“Lord, you’re mixing up a hell of a Caucasian, Jackie”).
“Try the veal, it’s the best in town” contains veal, new potatoes, olives and slices of blood orange in honor of the “Godfather”. In the classic film trilogy, oranges can be seen in scenes involving deeply significant death. The name of the veal dish is based on a phrase spoken by Virgil Sollozzo’s character before Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone killed him, though Nitehawk’s book attributes the famous words to corrupt police captain Mark McCluskey. He too was executed on the restaurant stage.
The brilliant cookbook is partly schtick, like the cocktail “Red Rum”, a mixture of rum and hibiscus syrup for “The Shining” (to the uninitiated, “redrum” is a murder spelled out upside down), and partly a literal movie reference, like âCup O ‘Pizzaâ from âThe Jerkâ.
Viragh took inspiration from Alamo Drafthouse, a chain of movie theaters offering alcohol and beer service and a growing presence now in New York City. It was founded in Austin, Texas, where the Fort Worth native went to college.
âAfter school I moved to New York City to pursue other things and I always missed that kind of experience,â he said. “There was nothing like it here and I thought it would be a wonderful addition to the New York City film and food scene.”
To figure out how to do this, Viragh traveled to Portsmouth, Virginia, and spent time at the Commodore Theater, a restored Art Deco cinema with a fine dining restaurant in the main auditorium.
âThe owner, Fred Schoenfeld, was kind enough to welcome me and let me spend the summer there. He gave me room and board, and I basically learned all the ins and outs of running a restaurant theater, âsaid Viragh. “I knew I could do this.”
Viragh lives in an apartment at the top of his original location in the Williamsburg neighborhood with his wife and two children. Together, its theaters have 10 screens and 836 seats. He renovated a historic cinema for its second location, the old Sanders Theater which opened in 1928 just off Prospect Park. Viragh has retained touches of the past, including marble staircases hidden under the carpet.
Special feasts, themed dishes, and drinks at Nitehawk come and go with the first-run, arthouse, and classic films it 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 her book used by home chefs for movie-themed nights or quiet, romantic “Nitehawk and chill” nights.
He and key members of his team worked on the project during the most severe isolation of the pandemic, when theaters closed for a year and Viragh was forced to put many staff on leave. The book, with over 100 recipes, was published in early December by The Countryman Press, a brand of WW Norton & Company.
âWe were working on this book before the pandemic, but it was slow. We obviously had a lot more free time and it exploded into something even bigger than we had imagined. It was the only silver lining in the zipper, âhe said.
The Nitehawks, like other restaurants, served curbside and delivery when permitted during the pandemic. Business has since picked up and special menus are back, such as a “Shark’s Daiquiri” and a “Jet’s Manhattan” to celebrate the new “West Side Story”. Unique special screenings are also back and include the upcoming âPurple Rain,â with a serving of fried cheese curds and purple ketchup to celebrate Prince and his native Minnesota.
As for the book, Nitehawk’s customers swallow it up.
âI had no expectations regarding sales of the book,â said Viragh. âI’m just so glad we wrote the book and kept busy during our shutdown. It’s a celebration of all the talented people who have worked here over the years and what we’ve created together.