Contigo & Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In Make the Perfect Date Night
Tribeza’s food critic rediscovers the perfect pairing – dinner and a movie
By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
Some classic pairings seem eternal: chips and salsa, Topo Chico and tequila, dinner and a movie. While the pandemic certainly threatened to undo the latter, shuttering restaurants and movie theaters during lockdown, the quintessential night out is not quite dead. With a little ingenuity—and a sweater—the dinner and a movie lives!
Both the meal and the movie are alfresco. Start by dining at Contigo, a sprawling outdoor restaurant with an urban ranch vibe and vittles; then, cruise around the corner to the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, a completely open-air movie theater. Boom! You’ve got a modern-day, virus-averse dinner and movie night out on the town.
Adjacent to the East Side’s Mueller development, this winning duo has charmed Austinites for a decade. Inspired by the ranches of South Texas, Contigo opened in 2011, when Mueller was still in its infancy. Childhood friends Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart rolled the dice on opening a new restaurant in this up-and-coming area. Now, some 10 years later, their gamble proved to be a winning bet. Almost entirely outdoors, the restaurant’s socially distanced picnic tables and four-tops are scattered throughout the rambling compound, which features a welcoming, rugged farmhouse look and stylish accents. On cooler nights, there are heaters at every table, and when the weather warms, leafy trees and umbrellas create a canopy of shade.
Contigo’s menu is a sophisticated take on rustic ranch food, showcasing a seasonally revolving selection of greatest hits plus fresh new additions. The crispy green beans are a perennial favorite and for good reason: Crunchy, tempura-battered legumes are served with a spicy Sambal aioli and make the perfect foil to a frosty beer. The fried cheese curds are a seasonal offering but equally addictive: light, fluffy nuggets of fried cheese that are dusted with grated Parmesan and fresh herbs, then served with a creamy umami-bomb dipping sauce. They’re like fried mozzarella for grown-ups.
Another signature dish is the burger, made with local Windy Bar Ranch beef and served with double-fried, thin-cut french fries. The Philly cheesesteak is also a mainstay, loaded with grilled tri-tip, onions and poblanos; sprinkled with everything spice; tucked into a toasted hoagie roll; then drizzled with yummy beer-infused homemade “cheese whiz.”
Contigo does wonders with rabbit: Even if you think you’re not a rabbit fan, trust me on this. The meat is always fresh, sweet and tender and simmered with roasted carrots, cipollini onions, herbs and savory au jus. Whether it’s tucked into a pot pie or shredded atop homemade gnocchi, it’s one of my favorite dishes in town.
Although Contigo’s soul is rustic ranch, beer is not the only offering coming out of the cantina. The cocktails are as classy as any highfalutin bar around. The refreshing El Pepino, a staple since day one, is a mix of blanco tequila, cucumber, lime and mint. Another crowd-pleaser is the Frozen Painkiller, a tasty and stealthily potent blend of light and dark rums, plus coconut, pineapple and orange juices.
Although Contigo offers a few modest desserts, I recommend saving room for candy and popcorn at your next stop: the Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In. Located just half a mile down the road, this multiscreen outdoor theater is spread across the vacant fields and woods bordering a municipal golf course and the defunct Moose Lodge. If you’re looking for ways to Keep Austin Weird, your search ends here. This authentically and unapologetically quirky theater is not your old-school drive-in. Colorful twinkle lights are haphazardly strung along its dirt paths, fences and trees. Battered vintage trailers double as the concession stand, restroom and equipment storage. For added ambiance, thrift store décor like plastic mannequins and discarded movie memorabilia are scattered throughout the grounds.
The setting is intimate, with only a handful of cars or seats allowed at each of its half-dozen screens, some reserved for in-car viewing and others for watching in socially distanced lounge chairs outside of your car. And speaking of intimate, BSL endorses making out in your car, as long as you keep your clothes on.
Shows run the gamut from classics to kid-friendly animation, cult horror films and new-release indies. Admission includes a bag of popcorn, a soft drink and a box of retro movie theater candy like Milk Duds, M&Ms and Skittles. Serial entrepreneur (and mad genius) Josh Frank started BSL a decade ago but continues to tinker with his creation, like adding the new Drive-In Diner, where meals are delivered to your car on 1950s carhop window trays. He also runs BSL theaters atop a downtown Austin high-rise and in Round Rock.
So get back out there. Grab your boo or your buddy, your mask and your sweater, and make a night of it. Dinner and a movie might not look the same, but it still ticks all the boxes. This venerable combo isn’t dead. It’s just different.