I probably shouldn’t have ordered the wings.
I was so ridiculously eager to patronize Cinebarre, the brilliant new eat-in movie theater at Biltmore Square Mall, that I went there long before any critic would typically pay a visit. And, of course, all the good reasons for exercising such restraint came rushing back to me when my hot wings were served, not with a side of blue cheese as requested, but with a side of even more hot sauce—an inadvertent substitution I discovered when, with my eyes trained on the screen, I dunked a fat drumette into the fiery stuff, leaving me flailing silently in the dark. (Somehow it didn’t seem a series of heat-induced screams would mesh well with the love scene unfolding above.)
Still, I couldn’t wait to go back for my official review visit. Because even with my tongue aflame, I really liked Cinebarre. And now that it’s worked out its very few kinks, I like it even more.
According to a recent issue of Food & Wine, dinner as theater is the touchstone principle at a few trendy, big-city eateries that have lately recruited sound and light designers to transform their decors into stunning sets worthy of an Andrew Lloyd Weber extravaganza. Here in Western North Carolina, restaurateurs are instead reinvigorating an older equation—theater as dinner. It’s a worthy endeavor in a town where kitchens close so early that attending a show often means dining at the ungodly hour of 6 p.m. or making a meal of Goobers and cheap white wine.
The food served at Cinebarre, and at our second destination, the Fiddlin’ Pig—a bluegrass and barbecue joint housed in the old Joe’s Crab Shack on Tunnel Road—isn’t the sort that makes you wish the projectionist would halt the film or the mandolin player would mute his strings so you could more fully savor the subtle flavors. It’s functional food, but—in a turn sure to earn an enthusiastic bravo from starving art appreciators—it often functions very, very well.
If you didn’t know better, at first glance you might assume Fiddlin’ Pig has all the makings of a tourist trap: bubbly waitstaff, walls plastered with attractive black-and-white shots of Asheville and a constant stream of cloggers scuffing the pine planked dance floor. But the diners I saw on my visits to the restaurant all seemed to be locals who knew good bluegrass—and, quite possibly, the family behind the operation.
Matthew and Maria Burril have impeccable credentials as Buncombe County natives; Matthew’s father helped establish the Fairview Volunteer Fire Department, while Maria’s grandmother, who worked at the Biltmore Estate back when the Vanderbilts lived there, was the first woman to sit on the county school board. As the story goes on the Fiddlin’ Pig Web site, the couple decided the area desperately needed a place that was equally friendly to big families and small wallets, with “mountain-true food” and “inspiring music.” If you can imagine the restaurant Cracker Barrel means to evoke, you’ve got an idea of what actually goes on at the Fiddlin’ Pig.
I first visited Fiddlin’ Pig in the company of a friend’s five-person band which was on the last leg of a 50-city tour that had apparently been powered by a steady diet of fried eggs and bar peanuts. Hunger, thy name is an Arcade Fire-esque outfit living out of a cargo van. But even with those appetites at work, our bill for a full-on feast came to just under $100, including a few drinks ordered from the full bar. When the Fiddlin’ Pig touts affordability, he’s not just whistling Dixie.
The food is sometimes mediocre, but none of it is disappoints enough to distract from the restaurant’s stellar lineup of top-notch bluegrass acts. The menu features chopped pork, beef ribs and smoked chicken, all available as platters or sandwiched inside a bun. The fried chicken was discontinued soon after opening night, as was a salad featuring a mound of chicken salad plopped into the center of an onion ring. Since I rarely see onion rings used as frames, I was anxious to try the dish on my second visit, but, after I placed my order, a manager scurried over with the bad news. I’m not sure why the restaurant hasn’t marked its folded paper menus to reflect the changes—or kept its servers in the loop—but since I ended up with a perfectly passable garden salad crowned with pulled smoked chicken, I can’t complain too much.
Despite its name, the Fiddlin’ Pig seems to fare best with chicken: While the grilled chicken was achingly dry, the wings—which were surely too large to help any animal levitate, least of all the eater—weren’t bad, although they were tossed with a Buffalo sauce that tasted very much like the tomato-based barbecue sauce that showed up with the pork.
The pork was slightly better than the ribs, which were raggedy with fat, but it still had the stamp of industrial flavor I usually associate with hospital cafeterias and zoo concession stands (an association probably encouraged by the restaurant’s well-scrubbed, wooden interior, which hits the same “you’re in a barn” notes as some upscale petting farms).
So forget the pork. And the limp corn-on-the-cob and the vinegary collards. Stick to the eminently snackable fried pickle chips, the smoky chicken, the creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and the barbecue baked beans. Or go for dessert—the cobbler and chocolate cake taste just as they should. It could be the cheapest ticket you’ll ever buy to a right-on bluegrass show.
You won’t necessarily save any money at Cinebarre—you can drop $25 on a bottle of cab before the previews start playing—but, like the pain I endured wolfing down my over-sauced wings (which were, by the way, terrifically good), your doubts will quickly fade. Cinebarre’s conceit is a moviegoing experience for adults, many of whom now resignedly wait for the DVD release of the latest really good movie with kid appeal (this summer’s been full of them, from Ratatouille to Harry Potter and The Simpsons), rather than risk being seated in front of a chatty 6-year-old who kicks. At Cinebarre, kids under 6 are forbidden from even entering the theater for most shows, and anyone under 18 must be accompanied by a parent.
The menu is almost equally divided between food and drink, with the bar supplying an admirable selection of draft beers, including Bell’s Oberon, Pisgah Pale and Catawba Brown Bear, and a few cutely named frozen concoctions. All of the food items have also been christened with filmic names, so if you and your date want potato skins, a sirloin-steak hoagie and a pizza topped with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, you’ll be ordering a Body Snatchers, Rocky and Braveheart.
But you won’t have to say those silly names; to place an order at Cinebarre, you write it on a form that you prop on your table to signal your server. The system works remarkably well. The service is agreeably unobtrusive, which means unused plates may linger a mite too long, but you don’t have to reckon with too many folks moving around.
The menu at Cinebarre features basic, pub-grub fare, starting with chips and salsa and ending with cupcakes. But while some restaurants have managed to do some very nasty things with frozen products, Cinebarre proves even premade food can be well-handled.
Take the kicky little mozzarella sticks, which were as golden as the menu promised and served with a dollop of spicy marinara. I’m also a fan of the jalapeno peppers, which were injected with the thinnest sheet of cream cheese before an obviously practiced hand put them in the fryer. I do wish there was a salad on Cinebarre’s menu: Except for the salsa, every single starter is fried.
Burgers and pizzas make up most of the menu’s entrée section, although the fry-averse can get a veggie burger or grilled-chicken sandwich. The thick, seasoned burgers are startlingly well cooked, losing taste points only because they’re served on bland all-white buns. The pizzas also suffer from a lackluster crust, but the toppings are punchy with flavor: Even a plain-Jane pie of cheeses, tomato and mozzarella was enjoyable.
I have only one quibble with Cinebarre: Popcorn made the menu cut, but candy apparently didn’t. It hardly feels like a movie without Junior Mints. But I think I can get used to it.