The best movie popcorn in D.C.: A taste test (poll, video, photos)

But perhaps the most shocking thing we learned was that most theaters don't use butter anymore. According to an AMC rep's response in this forum, the company uses Lou Ana Buttery Topping, primarily a mixture of soybean oil and buttery flavor. Regal uses a similar liquid, according to this 2009 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which details the caloric nightmare of corn popped in coconut oil. (Reps from both chains did not return calls for comment.) The AFI Silver, meanwhile, uses soybean oil because, as the young man working the counter explained, the butter machine was messy and expensive, and because customers had requested a healthier topping. It may have been healthier, but it was also much less flavorful.

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movie theater popcorn
Jenny Rogers, left, and Lisa Rowan ponder Regal Gallery Place's popcorn. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Long story short

REVEALED BY SCIENCE: D.C.'s best movie popcorn.

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Sometimes, though, it was hard to tell. We weren't sure what topping the E Street Cinema used because we'd applied so much white cheddar seasoning to the bag. Stephanie Kagan, who handles E Street's publicity, didn't know either, but earlier this week a concessionaire showed me the tub they use: O'Dells Super-Kist. Like the E Street, the Avalon scored well in our test, but its general manager, Henry Passman, told me the topping is made of corn, coconut, and canola oils, a blend he buys industrially by the gallon.

Why not real butter? "Butter is frighteningly expensive, and it is perishable," he said, noting the difficulty of keeping it at "safe levels of temperature." The key instead is the quality of the kernels: "One of the most important things is fresh popcorn, meaning the seeds have to be fresh. I think the brand may or may not be as important as the bags are. We tend not to order massive amounts of popcorn so we don't have a lot lying around." Another important thing: keeping the kettle's thermostat calibrated. "We have professionals maintain it," he explained.

e street
E Street's white cheddar topping.

Ask Passman how he prepares popcorn at home, though, and he'll tell you he melts butter. There remains one theater in town that still prepares it this way: the West End Cinema. Co-owner Josh Levin says he cooks the kernels in 100 percent coconut oil, "and we never, ever keep popcorn overnight, so every batch is fresh. It's never put in a plastic bag and thrown in a storage closet." As for the topping, he says, "We use real butter. We never use that butter-esque shit. This is real, salted butter."

west end cinema popcorn
The winner: West End Cinema.

No wonder I ranked the West End Cinema's popcorn first. Real butter! Amen! My fellow tasters enjoyed it, too. Even though the West End was the final stop on our tour, and came directly after lunch, together we finished that bag of popcorn — something which hadn't occurred at any of the previous six stops. Nonetheless, Nathasha ranked E Street first, as she was hopelessly enamored with the white cheddar topping. Lisa and Jenny, meanwhile, gave the Avalon their top vote. But when our top-three rankings were combined mathematically — five points for first place, three points for second, one point for third — look who came out on top:

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