It's the perfect socially-distanced outing.

By Naomi Tomky
April 23, 2020
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As the coronavirus pandemic closes businesses and shuts people into their houses, it seems that everything old is new again: chain letters, sourdough baking, and puzzles.

A few savvy restaurants, devoid of customers and looking for new ways to bring in business without putting people in danger, found the logical intersection of nostalgia, social distancing, and good eating: turning their parking lots into drive-in movie theaters.

Credit: D. Hurst / Alamy Stock Photo

“When the world is shutting down, we have to go back to our roots for entertainment,” posted Clint Gibson, owner of BJ’s Restaurant and Bar in Mingus, Texas, announcing the first movie showing in their parking lot, of The Sandlot, complete with car-hops.

The classic drive-in theater is having a moment during the pandemic, too (and the New York Times is on it), but with only around 300 facilities in the country, few people can take advantage of this prime way to watch movies on the big screen without sharing space with strangers. So restaurants, as they so often do, have stepped in to find a way to keep people entertained and well-fed.

In Omaha, The Corner Kick brought out about 35 cars to their parking lot earlier this month—some people in their cars, others perched in their trunk with the tailgate open, all watching The Three Amigos on three different screens on the side of the building, with the audio broadcast into cars via FM radio. After a successful first run, they’ve since made movie night a weekly event; this week will be their fourth.

Credit: Ajo Al's

This Saturday, Ajo Al’s, a group of Mexican restaurants in Arizona, took the concept for a test run, setting up inflatable screens in each location’s parking lot and showing the Pixar movie Coco to guests, with all cars parked six feet apart. It’s not exactly the blast from the past of 1950s drive-in theaters, where concession stands doubled as social hubs and people perched on mattresses in truck beds, but it’s a version that adapts an old tradition to the difficult modern circumstances—now with takeout tacos.

The idea of finding safety from sickness at the drive-in is nothing new. The first drive-in theater opened in 1933, but the polio vaccine wasn’t developed until 1955, so the intervening 22 years offered opportunity for drive-ins to expand their reputation from “passion pit” to family entertainment. Drive-ins ran ads to appeal to parents “who fear to expose their children or themselves to local epidemics,” and noted that they were a place to “be flu and polio protected.”

Houston restaurant The Butler House looks to bring back that passion pit mentality, though, creating date night-worthy events. They started their movie nights a month ago, showing Ferris Bueller and serving arugula walnut pesto chicken straight to people’s cars and have now evolved to offering “Vintage nights” that combine old movies with wine tastings. Servers deliver Malbec short ribs and the paired wines to the car, wine reps walk guests through the pours, and films like Some Like It Hot show on the big screen.

Popping up a movie theater in the middle of a pandemic hasn’t been without a few challenges for restaurants giving it a try, though. Not every studio is stoked on the showings—BJ’s had originally planned to play Top Gun and A League of Their Own this weekend, but both Paramount Pictures and Sony pulled back on allowing screenings.

For V Pizza in Cary, North Carolina, the entire operation got shut down. After their first showing, complete with HD picture and surround sound, the local police made them stop the events. The state’s stay-at-home order restricted openings to essential businesses, which movie screenings, apparently, were not. But for any customers—especially those hoping to have a drink while watching a movie—there remains just one big problem: since dining rooms are closed, most of these places have no available bathrooms.