By Gary Meyer
Evolving menus. Sensual environment. Champagne and Oysters on the half shell. Since 1999 Foreign Cinema has been a magical destination for San Franciscans and international visitors. It is a place with an ever-changing menu for brunch, lunch, dinner and late night and is like no other restaurant you have ever enjoyed with its outdoor cinema and various unique rooms. You can even eat in the projection booth.
A San Francisco Chronicle “Top 100 Restaurants” for eighteen consecutive years, Chefs Gayle Pirie and John Clark’s collective visions weave food, wine, cocktails, film and art gallery into one harmonious ambiance along with the unique adjacent LASZLO bar.
With their “Foreign Cinema Cookbook” Pirie and Clark bring a unique volume of 125 recipes from cocktails, starters, salads and soups, main courses of seafood, meats, and vegetables to desserts and weekend brunch. There is plenty of storytelling and over 200 lush color photographs by Ed Anderson.
EatDrinkFilms is proud to offer our readers the book’s Introduction and recipes for two of our favorite starters, Little Gem Salad with Radishes, Pepitas, and Green Goddess plus Tomato Cucumber Gazpacho.
Gayle Pirie and John Clark Bring It Back to the Line
When we began this part of our lives, being a professional line cook in San Francisco meant avidly reading cookbooks (mostly used), attending midnight repertory cinema, seeking out live performances, acting on artistic inclinations, and focusing your captivated attention on learning on the job. It was a competition within oneself, to advance your skill set and knowledge moment to moment. We studiously observed others wiser than ourselves, watched cooking techniques, practiced knife skills, and found solutions to challenges through tasting and connecting with guests, respecting the psychology behind each restaurant endeavor. We were intrepid, driven by pure curiosity and competitiveness as we laid pathways to unforeseen careers.
Drawn to the timeless beauty of European food, which we came to know through the writings of Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, and Brillat-Savarin, we spent countless days off losing ourselves further in the pages of Paula Wolfert, Giuliano Bugialli, Ada Boni, Leslie Forbes, Elizabeth Romer, and Anne Willan and planning what to cook next. Our penultimate theoretical classroom, dining out, was an education in what to do and what not to do.
Whether driving to Berkeley to dine at Chez Panisse or sitting at the bar at Stars in San Francisco, wherever we ventured, we brought something back to the line: flavors to remember, sensations to capture, and restaurant energy to synthesize and distill.
Cooking professionally asks you to mine the depths of all of your experience, embolden your life skills and intuition, both refined and lying in wait below consciousness, to inform, mold, and catapult yourself from cook to chef. Today, we bring to our work an amalgam of skills acquired over a lifetime, as jeweler, editor, mechanic, contractor, writer, oil painter, art teacher, parent.
Each of us has cooked in some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most distinctive restaurants: Square One, Café Esprit, China Moon, Zola’s, Vicolo Pizza, E Street Café, 39 Grove, Zuni Café, Stars, and Chez Panisse. In our seven years’ consulting practice, we helped restaurants open, refine management, go organic, evolve menus, improve communications—sometimes all of the above, decades before Gordon Ramsay televised those entertaining culinary challenges. Beyond assisting a great number of California operators achieve their long- and short-term culinary and business goals, our work took us around the world to cook food our way, in many kitchens here and abroad. Ultimately, this seven-year stint solving problems for others, along with all that came before it, prepared us for our arrival on set at Foreign Cinema.
Food and Film
A History of a True Double Feature
The Foreign Cinema vision is as aspiring today as it was in 1999, when local newspaper headlines read ambitious mission restaurant to mix films with food. San Francisco, backdrop to and seductive character in numerous iconic films—Vertigo, Bullitt, The Conversation, Chan Is Missing, Dirty Harry, Interview with the Vampire—celebrates both restaurants and cinematic efforts and embraces emerging food concepts and cinema as high art forms. This time, the two concepts would fuse.
Mission Street in the 1950s included the sprawling, rollicking Miracle Mile, where working-class masses shopped competitively before flocking to the cinema, filling as many as ten thousand theater seats. Community gathered, cultures celebrated, and lives were lived on the vibrant boulevard. By the ’90s, five landmark theaters dotting the old Miracle Mile corridor sat dormant, in arrested decay, and symbolized the rapidly shifting tide of big theater fragility in places where neighborhood rituals of shopping and communing disappeared with the always-changing city. The restaurant’s founding team—visionary Jon Varnedoe and his wife and muse, Juliet, Michael Hecht, and passionate financier Bruce McDonald—believed in and understood the churning, encompassing dream coming together day to day: reinvigorate the art of cinema in the Mission, adding good food to relish under the stars.
In 1997, our address at 2534 Mission Street housed a 99-cent store, two shuttered businesses, and a rare, sizable open courtyard ankle deep in debris. Since 1926, past lives of the unique site include a See’s Candies Store, Knit Kraft sportswear retailer, optometry and medical offices, and Byron’s Shoe Emporium. Jon wrestled for the lease to unify the whole space and envisioned revitalization of the neighborhood’s past cinematic glory, capitalizing on the cinder block wall riddled with bullet holes in the courtyard—the size of the famous Castro Theater—while serving French bistro food.
Construction began on this new gathering place for artists, filmmakers, and San Franciscans in search of the new in 1998. Simultaneously, the shuttered Cine Latino theater—once the Rialto, then the Crown—across the street began dismantling its wood floors, tossing the boards into a dumpster. Jon inquired about them and was given the planks on the spot, with the condition that he take them immediately. The crew moved between the sites, preserving the flooring and, months later, installing the genuine pinewood theater floor as the foundation for Foreign Cinema’s main dining room. The gently arced metal railing crowning the mezzanine dining room, also salvaged from the Cine Latino across the street, gave the mezzanine floor a grand theatrical feeling.
As construction neared completion, a big opening night was planned, with a local artist commissioned to build a Jesus statue to annoint the courtyard via helicopter, replicating the opening scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Awaiting the opening party in August 1999, the adoring public signed ominous legal waivers, should the chopper and statue meet an unfortunate fate on their dramatic courtyard entry. Four different cameras with tracks were mounted on the roofs to record the arrival. Though Jesus failed to show—the rookie pilot in charge declaring the statue too heavy for the helicopter—the party raged forward into the night. Troupes of pagan fire dancers christened a new, enchanted setting San Francisco had yet to experience.
The dueling food and film concepts were synthesized into a nightly experience, and the films were not always foreign. Chinatown, Annie Hall, Jaws, and other classics flickered on 35-millimeter film from spools and trays, using the projector given to Foreign Cinema by the neighboring iconic New Mission Theater. The double feature played nightly to a city hungry for food, film, and a unique experience.
The theater-style venue and authentic drive-in speakers, combined with French bistro food, offered a blueprint for the extraordinary. But the daily reality could be rough, as the luster dimmed with the unknowns of the dot-com bust gripping San Francisco. The additional financial drama of the management team’s landmark sister restaurant, Bruno’s, meant that their operational playbook went from offense to defense to a Hail Mary pass in the troubled, turbulent neighborhood.
In July 2001, we entered a restaurant nearing bankruptcy, calling Foreign Cinema our enfant terrible in need of tough parental love.
From Film and Food to Food Featuring Film
In the beginning, the charming restaurant, riddled with romance and conflict, was hard to locate. No address was listed in the phone book. The front entrance proudly featured no signage. Upon arrival, guests didn’t know what to expect, asking when the movie started. Serious film buffs scorned the idea of food interrupting a movie, calling the idea “gimmicky.” We understood immediately that the concepts of film and food required better integration.
Our charge: fortify Foreign Cinema with a daily changing menu, vibrant and enduring, summoning the spirit of a Roman market square. Bring experiential quality to guests on all levels, weaving incongruous parts into one harmonious whole. Work with local producers, growers, and fishmongers to express our native hearts and souls. Reflect our coastal regions with a variety of oysters on the half shell and seafood menu. Build up a steady clientele of regulars who feel both at home with us and well nourished. From the start, the setting dictated our cuisine, but the menu always came first: alluring, with something for everyone and the clarity of flavors punched up to match the grandeur of the space. The food had to be vigorous in taste, to fill a grand piazza projecting cinematic classics, as well as the adjacent dining room centered near the roaring hearth. Yet the menu could not be fussy, pretentious, or overworked. From perfectly grilled steak frites to pristinely shucked oysters, we created a palate with sex appeal, based on what we truly wanted to eat.
Ultimately, we would turn a film plus food concept into a food concept that featured film. With original financier and partner Bruce McDonald, we forged a new lean team to work intensely to pay off all debt and address the fledgling business with our hearts and minds, and a generous sense of spirit.
Little Gem Salad
with Radishes, Pepitas, and Green Goddess
Originally created in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in 1923 to honor the film of the same name, Green Goddess salad has experienced a popular resurgence. Along with the classic dressing, we add radishes and toasted pumpkin seeds for texture—sliced avocado is another popular addition. While romaine is traditional, we prefer Little Gem lettuces for their attractive, compact heads of small, curly leaves that catch and hold the dressing.
Serves 4 to 6
4 heads Little Gem lettuce
Pinch of kosher salt
1¼ cup (300 ml) Green Goddess Dressing (recipe follows)
6 red radishes, cleaned, tops removed, and thinly sliced
1/4 cup (15 g) toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1/3 cup (50 g) crumbled queso fresco or feta cheese, or freshly grated
Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano
-In a large bowl, separate the lettuces into individual leaves, crush the kosher salt over the leaves, and toss them with enough dressing to coat them (you may not need it all).
-Arrange the lettuces on a platter or on individual plates and evenly distribute the radishes, pepitas, and cheese over the top.
Green Goddess Dressing
Makes about 11/4 cups (300 ml)
1/2 cup (120 ml) Basic Mayonnaise (see below)
1/3 cup (75 ml) crème fraîche or sour cream
1/4 cup (60 ml) pure olive oil
1 small clove garlic
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
11/4 teaspoons kosher salt, or more to taste
-In a blender or food processor, combine all the ingredients and blend until smooth, about 2 minutes. Taste and add more lemon juice and salt, if you wish. Refrigerate any leftover dressing in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Makes 1 cup (240 ml)
1 cup (240 ml) olive oil
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
-Put the oil in a glass measuring cup or pitcher that you can easily handle with one hand while whisking with the other.
-Put the egg yolk in a medium nonreactive bowl. While continuously whisking, add the oil drop by drop, incorporating each drop before adding the next. As the mixture thickens and emulsifies, begin adding the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream, continuing to whisk vigorously, until you have added all of the oil. The mixture should be thick and glossy. Whisk in the vinegar, salt, and 2 teaspoons water until fully incorporated.
-Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Briefly whisk smooth before using.
“WE HAVE 250 OR 300 COOKBOOKS THAT WE LOOK AT—BUT I THINK IT WAS THE IDEA OF JUST UNDERSTANDING A SENSE OF PLACE AND AND SO THOSE WRITERS—YOU KNOW, PAULA WOLFERT, OF COURSE, AND ANNE WILLAN—LOTS OF WRITERS WHO WOULD TAKE YOU TO A PLACE SO THAT YOU WOULD GET A SENSE OF THAT, AND THEN YOU’D HAVE A BROADER PICTURE.” – Gayle Pirie
Tomato Cucumber Gazpacho
Here’s a lovely recipe to make when you’ve got these staples on hand and the weather permits. Plus, it’s a great get-ahead soup. Make the gazpacho several hours ahead or even a day in advance. You definitely want the soup served cold, and the flavors need a chance to marry. A chilled soup requires more salt than a hot soup, so don’t be afraid to heighten the flavors with extra salt as well as an extra splash of vinegar or a generous squeeze of fresh lime juice when it comes out of the refrigerator.
4 large vine-ripened tomatoes, such as Early Girls, diced
1 cup (140 g) chopped peeled and seeded English cucumber, plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped cucumber, for garnish
1/2 cup (75 g) diced red bell pepper
1/4 cup (35 g) diced red onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, or more to taste
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
-In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatoes, 1 cup (140 g) of the cucumber, the bell pepper, red onion, garlic, oil, vinegar, salt, and red pepper flakes and blend on high speed until the mixture is smooth, 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and add more vinegar or salt, if you like.
-Refrigerate the gazpacho in an airtight container for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours before serving.
-To serve, ladle the gazpacho into chilled bowls, drizzle with oil, and top with the finely chopped cucumber.
Text copyright © 2018 Gayle Pirie and John Clark
Food photographs copyright © 2018 Ed Anderson
Introduction and recipes courtesy of the authors and Abrams Books.
Foreign Cinema is located at 2534 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
Telephone +1 415 648 7600
Facebook with great photos
Escape into Laszlo, a bar with comfortable seating, avant garde cocktails, advanced sound system, sidewalk seating, private banquettes and a vast vinyl collection.
2526 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Phone: (415) 648-7600
Gayle Pirie & John Clark
Chef/Co-owners of Foreign Cinema
Partners Gayle Pirie and John Clark are two highly original talents who have been deeply involved in the competitive and innovative ferment of the San Francisco restaurant scene for over two decades. Today, Pirie and Clark are the chef talent and owners behind the very popular and exciting dining destination in San Francisco – Foreign Cinema. The two met while working at the former Vicolo Pizza, a popular pre- and post-theater destination located in the Civic Center neighborhood. Later, Pirie and Clark were hired on at San Francisco’s legendary Zuni Café as line cooks and were promoted to co-chefs de cuisine shortly after, earning critical approval for the purity, quality and consistency of their food. The duo then developed a restaurant consulting practice to create restaurant concepts and designs for a diverse and adventurous set of clients in the United States, Asia, and Canada. They spent nearly two years in Hong Kong developing two new restaurants, and traveled widely in Europe and Asia researching locally produced and artisanal ingredients before returning to the states. In 2001, Pirie and Clark joined forces and took over the kitchen of Foreign Cinema where they implemented an ever changing California-Mediterranean influenced menu and full oyster bar, earning the restaurant three stars from the San Francisco Chronicle and eighteen consecutive “Top 100” rankings. After ten years at the helm of one of the city’s most popular dining destinations, she and her partner are inspired to execute a different dining experience seven days a week. From the daily changing menu featuring seasonal ingredients to the flowers, décor, cocktails, and film, Foreign Cinema is an ever-evolving sensual dining experience. In addition to Foreign Cinema and their new ventures, they have published two cookbooks. Inspired by their affinity for eggs and the many ways you can prepare them, they published “Country Egg, City Egg” in 2000 and reprinted it in 2008 by popular demand. “Bride and Groom Cookbook”, a culinary guide and cookbook for newlyweds, was published in 2006. All three books can be purchased from Foreign Cinema and at fine bookstores near you.
Pirie and Clark live in Berkeley with their two children, Magnus and Pearl. The highly anticipated namesake “Foreign Cinema Cookbook” debuted in May 2018.
Salt + Spine podcast with Gayle and John.
Read “A Changing Mission” by Joe Garofoli and Carolyn Said and watch the documentary and various extras courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.