When Bill Banowsky opened his first Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, Texas, in 2011, 20 million Netflix subscribers were donning their pajamas and ordering delivery pizza to nosh while watching movies from the comfort of their couches.
Leaders in the film and theater industry wondered whether people would still go to the movies when they could get them at home on their computers and televisions. “My view was, and is, that people want an out-of-home entertainment experience,” says Banowsky. The social experience of watching a film among other people cannot be duplicated at home. The theater business is very much alive, but it needs to evolve so that it is offering a compelling night out.”
So, when Banowsky started Violet Crown Cinema, he aimed to offer a movie theater experience that would appeal to a thoughtful and intelligent group of people. He’d entice their minds with art house, independent and foreign language films, and tempt their palates (and stomachs) with chef-prepared food and a full beer, wine and cocktail menu.
To create Violet Crown’s third location on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, Banowsky’s team gutted the inside of the Downtown Regal. Gone is the heavy brick façade, the dark walls, the low ceiling and the neon-lit concession stand. The new space is warm, open and bright, with deep violet-colored walls, natural wood, butterscotch accents and clouded glass globe pendant lamps. The theater’s glass façade offers mall patrons a glimpse into the first-floor café and bar area and the second-floor concession stand. Banowsky worked with Charlottesville’s Board of Architectural Review to ensure that the midcentury modern-inspired architecture suited the look and feel of the mall. The inviting space hardly looks like a movie theater; at first glance, Violet Crown Cinema could easily pass for an upscale bar and restaurant.
Inside, 10 auditoriums equipped with digital projectors seat anywhere from 30 to 160 moviegoers at a time. Three smaller rooms are tucked behind the bar on the first floor; the rest of the auditoriums are located on the second floor, up a sweeping, open staircase.
You can purchase tickets online to reserve your seat in advance—like you would when booking a plane ticket—or visit the box office upon arrival. But there’s no bad seat in the place, and even the front row seats are comfortable and, dare I say, desirable: They recline to afford a better viewing angle. The theater also validates up to four hours of parking in the Market and Water street garages.
The bar and cafe open at 10:30am daily, and visitors who want to dine before their movie should arrive at least 45 minutes before the start of the film to peruse the menu, order and eat at one of the tables in the cafe or at the drink rail that overlooks the Downtown Mall.
You can also eat in the theater from the tray table that folds out of your luxury chair, but be sure to leave time before the movie starts for your food to be prepared. Once you’re in an auditorium, there’s no wait service, and you’re responsible for busing your tray post-film.
Like Violet Crown’s other two locations, the menu will feature local fare whenever possible. “It’s higher quality, and it makes more sense. It’s consistent with the ethos of the places where we are,” says Banowsky. “In Austin, Santa Fe and Charlottesville, people expect local. It’s what they want, and it’s what we want.”
The menu lists a variety of food, including a number of gluten-free and vegan dishes. And there are small plates of hummus, cheese, spring rolls and in-house, hand-cut French fries.
Violet Crown also offers a variety of salads, as well as vegetarian franks, Wagyu beef hot dogs and beer brats with fries, a nod to the drive-in movie theaters. In addition, you can get gourmet pizzas, which might be the easiest meal to enjoy on the fold-out tray tables during a film.
If you’re craving sweets, the cafe offers cake pops, ice cream and ice cream floats.
Melody Smith, director of operations for Violet Crown Cinema, says the theater has partnered with Albemarle Baking Company for breads, Mudhouse Coffee Roasters for coffee and espresso, and Feast! for cheeses and charcuterie. The theater is still searching for area vendors to incorporate as much local produce, meat and cheese as possible.
Smith says the theater is dedicated to serving a rotating selection of local beer, wine and cider, along with canned and bottled beer and imported wines. Violet Crown also boasts a selection of cleverly named craft cocktails that put a cinematic spin on old classics.
There’s the Violet Beauregard, a concoction of lemon, mint, berry-infused Maker’s Mark and blueberry soda, as well as the Dr. Gonzo’s Manhattan. The Bloody Carrie is a take on the Bloody Mary, and the Bonnie and Clyde is an interpretation of a traditional elderflower cocktail. Some cocktails, such as the Pineapple Express Margarita, can be served in a “theater-friendly larger size” for feature-length sipping.
And yes, you can still get popcorn, candy and soda from the concession counter.