YOU’LL LAUGH. YOU’LL CRY. YOU’LL MUNCH.
Forget the sliders at Butterfield 8 or the pepperoni pizza at Remo’s. The tastiest treat along Stamford’s Bedford Avenue could be the popcorn served at the Avon Theater. Like its magnificent art-deco neon marquee, Avon’s popcorn is iconic. Always fresh, these tiny cumulus clouds lightly coated in pure butter, melt in your mouth and stir remembrances of times past: double features, dark balconies and stolen kisses.
Popcorn may be the main profit maker at every movie house in Fairfield County, but there’s a lot of disparity, especially between chains and independents.
The popcorns served by three independents get my nominations for Best Performance by a Popcorn. As well as the Avon, I also vote for the corn at the Bethel Cinema and Garden Homes in Norwalk.
All three start with gourmet seeds. They pop fresh daily and toss away the unsold popcorn at night. The seeds are heated in a blend of premium oils, and upon request, the Avon and Bethel bathe the result in real butter. At these theaters, I found low hull residue and no “old ladies.”
The chains and multiplexes often stockpile batches -- so the popcorn can be hours, sometimes days old. It’s usually heated in cheaper oil and spritzed with artificial “buttery” flavored oil. (The Bowties in Stamford dispense artificial butter topping, but the Greenwich Bowtie squirts real butter.)
To me, popcorn is not just a delivery system for butter, salt and fat. The key to excellence is freshness, both in the seed (“kernels”) and the popped corn (“flakes”). I like the flakes warm, with body, but still airy and crispy so that they virtually “pop” in your mouth.
Popcorn is actually an edible explosion, frozen in time. As the kernel super-heats, the moisture inside expands and then explodes. In a blink, the liquefied starch solidifies into a white fluff, 45 times bigger than the seed. Watch this phenomenon in slow motion here.
Put a piece in your mouth and the explosion is reversed. Crunch! The flake “un-pops” as the molars’ pressure releases air and the saliva melts the starch. What’s stuck in your teeth is the hull, the original bran covering. Shrapnel from the explosion.
During my hunt for the best tasting detonations, I took anecdotal note how Fairfielders ate their popcorn in theaters. Women are dainty. Guys usually shovel it in. And almost everyone eats more at a time in the dark.
As for the best popcorn I ate …
Avon Theater, Stamford. Restored to its original “neo-colonial” luster, this member supported art house transports you back to the end of the Big Depression. But back then popcorn was dispensed by a machine in the lobby, probably by a nickle coin. Today, the tiny concession stand is tucked into a corner, dominated by the popper.
According to the Avon’s Adam Birnbaum, the corn is popped in small batches, one kettle at a time, so that the patron usually is eating pieces no more than 10-20 minutes old, and often just a few minutes fresh. They cook in a blend of corn and good tasting coconut oil (no transfat); and the gourmet Orville Redenbacher seeds produce crispier, slightly smaller flakes. Real dairy butter is added upon request. The popcorn in my small bag was warm, slightly buttered, fresh and fluffy. The flakes were not supersized and had satisfying density. I wasn’t chewing air. Crunch, Melt. Yum.
My only quibble is that traffic at the small stand can create long waits in a limited lobby. Arrive early
Prices 4.50/5.00/5.50 -- which help support this non profit cinema, since these revenues, unlike ticket sales, aren’t shared with a distributor.
Garden Home, Norwalk. The film selections and concessions are what give this plain theater its true charm. There’s a snack area – and a movie stub gets you free dessert at a rotating list of Norwalk restos.
The High Top brand seeds are poured from a real burlap bag into a vintage thirty year old popper, where a canola oil blend waits to perform its sorcery. Unlike the Avon, the Garden doesn’t use coconut oil because manager John Hines wants to lower the cholesterol of the theater’s popcorn. He also doesn’t use a real butter topping but a more stable flavored oil.
Their flakes are slightly bigger than the Avon and stored in a large glass warming case. I asked for mine from the popper, assuming it fresher than the stockpiled pieces. But Hines points out that the warm air dries off some of the cooking oil and crisps the corn. It’s actually healthier, tastier popcorn than what’s just been popped.
While Garden’s corn was really good, I missed the fresh butter. But next time, I’ll go for the crispier corn under glass.
Bethel Cinema, Bethel. Hidden in an undistinguished brick outpost near Danbury, you’d never suspect what waits inside: the most food-centric theater in Fairfield County. An excellent café, Cadiz, is entered through the lobby and offers sit down or takeout into the auditoria.
But Popcorn is the blockbuster hit of an elaborate concession stand packed with candies, cookies, even authentic gelato. Manager Brian Morrison says that 70% of all patrons visit the stand, and a whopping 3 out of 4 order popcorn, priced at 3.75/4.75/5.50 (a good buy compared to theatres nearer the Gold Coast.)
The Redenbacher seeds are popped in an Odell canister with a 90/10 blend of canola and olive oil, then kept warm with hot air. When scooped into the bag, optional butter is added both at the half fill and the top. Also available are seasonings from Caraluzzi’s supermarket nearby. I found the popcorn fresh, crisp, warm, clean tasting, and delicious. Top notch.
The Envelope, please. While the seasonings and the half fill squirt certainly give Bethel added value, my Oscar© for Fairfield’s Best Popcorn goes to…. the Avon. It’s the total experience.
Like hotdogs at a ballpark, popcorn tastes better at the movies. Munching perfect, buttered popcorn in the dark of a splendid emporium like the Avon – can there be a better treat?
Ok …a stolen kiss. Maybe.