Iconic River Oaks Theatre dramatically rescued by Houston cinema chain

The dramatic saga of Houston’s most iconic arthouse theater has a seemingly happy ending, thanks to a local company. The historic River Oaks Theatre, shuttered and its fate left dangling like a cliffhanger in 2021, will be owned and operated by Houston-based Star Cinema Grill, the popular dine-in-theater concept.

Notably, the new operators promise to preserve the theater’s name (note the new spelling of “Theater”), history, Art Deco design, and ensure the theater remains “Houston’s premium destination for arthouse cinema,” Star Cinema Grill director of development Jason Ostrow tells CultureMap.

Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Star Cinema Grill representatives, members of Friends of the River Oaks Theatre, and other dignitaries for a press conference on Wednesday, February 2 to announce the 10-year deal, brokered by Kimco Realty, which acquired the River Oaks Shopping Center in August of 2021 after its merger with Weingarten Realty. The venue was previously operated by Landmark Theatres.

As for an open date, Ostrow notes that as Star Cinema Grill is headaching every detail of the theater, such as custom-created chairs and specific preservation elements, the River Oaks may not show its debut film until the end of the year.

So does this mean the beloved movie house will transform into a Star Cinema Grill operation? “Yes and no,” says Ostrow: “This is not going to be a Star Cinema Grill, I want to make this very clear. There will be a dine-in component; it’s to be determined on how it functions.” Given that Star Cinema Grills also owns familiar restaurants State Fair and Liberty Kitchen, fans can expect an “exciting” menu, Ostrow promises, who is mum on any other details.

As for the dine-in element, guests may order early, during previews for example, to preserve the cinematic experience. “Every aspect: decor, food and beverage, ambience, liquor, beer, wine will be curated and tailored to the demographic who comes to the River Oaks Theater,” Ostrow adds.

That the historic Houston theater has been rescued by Houston company is a bit of a Hollywood ending, one not lost on Ostrow. “Omar Khan, our owner, is a lifelong Houstonian. His dad brought Bollywood to the U.S. It makes perfect sense for the only locally owned theater chain to preserve and save this theater.”

Given the theater’s dramatic turn of events — marked with passionate protests in 2021 — Ostrow says Khan’s presence will bring stability to the theater’s future. “This is the most unique theater in our circuit,” says Ostrow. “We’ve negotiated a lease in a way that ensures we can have this theater for as long as we’re willing to be here. This is what Omar wants to hold onto — this is a legacy project for him. Hopefully one day, his kids will be running the River Oaks Theater.”

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