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7 Need-To-Know Facts about Iconic Restaurant Foreign Cinema as It Turns 20

BY LEILANI MARIE LABONG | September 19, 2019 | Food & Drink

The beloved Mission District Foreign Cinema celebrates 20 years of dishing food and film.

Foreign Cinema chef/co-owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark

This month, Foreign Cinema, one of San Francisco’s most iconic restaurants (and the only place in the city where repertory film is paired with imaginative California fare as only two Zuni-trained chefs, Gayle Pirie, an SF native, and John Clark, could deliver), celebrates its 20th anniversary. It’s a milestone that the partners—both in the restaurant and in life—who came onboard as consultants in April 2001 could not have predicted. The city was reeling from the dot-com bust, and just five months into the couple’s tenure, the tragedy of 9/11 rightfully sent diners to cocoon in their homes for the foreseeable future. Clark and Pirie definitely had their work cut out for them, especially in the heart of the Mission district, at the time not quite the hip destination that it is today. “For the first six years, we worked 24/7 to make sure the restaurant would succeed. Those were fun days,” says Pirie. “We believed in it, but so did this community. We owe these last 20 years to San Francisco.” Here, we attempt to quantify Foreign Cinema’s 20-year legacy, even though such things are largely matters of the heart (and, in this case, belly). 2534 Mission St.

1,800,000 covers served (approximately). The two dishes that have been on the menu since 2001—when Pirie and Clark were hired as chefs—are the lavender-brined heritage pork chop and the ajwain steak. (They became partners/ owners a year later in 2002.) The young chef-restaurateurs were eager to integrate new flavors into their California style. They were captivated by the carawaylike scent of the ajwain seeds they discovered at a Berkeley spice shop, purchasing them on a whim to pair with cocoa nibs from another then-burgeoning Bay Area institution, Scharffen Berger. The mole-esque steak with its “je ne sais quoi smokiness,” says Pirie, is a “little reminder of the restaurant’s uncharted beginnings.”

1,395 wine labels in the restaurant cellar. Of those, 246 are from the local wine country: The pinot noir from Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast is the most purchased of the variety, and the Bettina red blend from Bryant Family Vineyards in Napa is among the rarest vintages in the stash.

493 movies screened since opening. The oldest film shown on the 22-by-33 cinder block wall— slathered in many coats of white paint to make it a suitable screen—is a German expressionist vampire flick from 1922 called Nosferatu, inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The newest film screened is 2013’s All Is Lost, featuring Robert Redford in a Golden Globe-winning portrayal of an experienced mariner lost at sea. The first film projected was the 1960 Federico Fellini dramedy, La Dolce Vita, a phrase that happens to encapsulate the mood in the restaurant on any given night.

5 to 7 reels of film per movie, each weighing more than 30 pounds. Only one trusted operator manages the Strong Simplex 35 mm projector, which was salvaged from the neighboring New Mission theater before it became Alamo Draft House. Foreign Cinema is actually one of the last Bay Area spots to use a 35 mm projector, along with Roxie Theater, also in the Mission, and the California Theater in Berkeley.

90 vintage film posters in the restaurant collection. Pirie and Clark originally acquired 18 post-WWII avant-garde Polish posters from Ojai-based art dealer Jane Handel. They’ve continued to grow the collection with a particular focus on the posters of Eastern European films. Artists often did not have a chance to watch the movies for which they were designing posters, so many graphics were based solely on titles. For example, a Polish poster of 1973 Academy Award-winning caper film The Sting features—you guessed it—bees.

3823 vinyl records in the house. Pirie often plays deejay, spinning these albums most frequently: Flesh and Blood by Roxy Music, which reached the top of the U.K. charts in June 1980; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, OMD’s eponymous first album; James Brown, Live at the Apollo, recorded in October 1962 on the Godfather’s own dime; and the 1959 Billboard pop chart topper, Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, featuring jazz compositions of unusual time signatures.

1 late-night TV monologue inspired by Foreign Cinema. Comedian Craig Ferguson dined at the restaurant for brunch in 2009 and then used his experience as inspiration for his opening monologue on The Late Late Show the next night. He spoke about the charm of the place and ordering his croque-monsieur and fries pantsless—a hilarious but untrue embellishment.

Photography by: ED ANDERSON