clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How Foreign Cinema Became an Iconic Restaurant and Arts Enclave

Looking back on two decades of oysters, bellini, and Fellini

Walking into Foreign Cinema isn’t like walking into any other restaurant. Here, a dark and narrow hallway opens into a flood of light. You enter, and there’s the fireplace-warmed dining room on the right, and the patio flickering with movies and twinkle lights on the left. The interior combines five different spaces, including a projector room, balcony, art gallery, and DJ bar. All together, it makes for one of the city’s most memorable and iconic restaurants.

But the restaurant you know and love didn’t start out that way. Twenty years ago, two investors named Jon Varnedoe and Michael Hecht took over several storefronts on a seedy stretch of Mission Street. Varnedoe had just sold his interest in two pioneering music venues, Bruno’s and Cafe du Nord. And Hecht had recently completed his MBA at Stanford. Laying down a $1.3 million investment and some big ambition, they completed a daunting build-out. Foreign Cinema opened as a movie theater with a bistro menu thrown in the mix. They hoped to expand into a six-outlet chain across the U.S., which would have been an entirely different story.

Enter John Clark and Gayle Pirie, two young guns for hire who stepped in as chefs and partners in 2001, two years after the original opening. They thought they were taking a quick chef gig. Little did they know they’d end up saving the operation from the brink of bankruptcy at the height of the dotcom bust. It didn’t just survive: It became one of the most enduring restaurants in San Francisco, going on to garner awards and accolades, including James Beard nominations and steady spots on top-100 lists. And yet, to this day, the story of these two star chefs, who still duck into the service entry every day, isn’t widely known.

Pirie and Clark were, respectively, an artist and an aspiring architect before they were line cooks, which is partly why the space beckoned — as a failing movie theater, it offered a blank canvas. Today, Foreign Cinema is primarily a restaurant, but movies, which play on a sweeping white brick wall on the patio, as well as regularly rotating art exhibits, make it an immersive experience.“I think what’s so compelling about the intersection of food, film, and art is the sense of escape,” Pirie says.

Yet from the outside, Foreign Cinema looks like a movie theater, and many guests struggle to spot the sign on the marquee. The hallway is surprisingly dark and long, before opening up into the actual restaurant, which is filled with light. The long dining room has the kitchen at one end and the bar at the other, with a big fireplace centered between. The patio is open air and strung with lights, and an original 35-mm camera projects from a second story to play movies on the back wall. Servers flow between the rooms with jewel-toned cocktails and oyster towers. It’s an enclave of sorts, taking up a surprising amount of the block, but hidden deep behind the bustling street.

“From the beginning, we knew the food had to be ambitious,” Pirie explains. “When you have an intimate restaurant, the food can be very simple. But when you have a big, loud, dramatic space, you have to go further.”

Pirie and Clark were inspired by California cooking luminaries, most notably their mentor Judy Rodgers, who in turn drew from the cookbook greats, like Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. So while Foreign Cinema’s style of food has been called Californian slash Mediterranean, more accurately, it’s old-world European — think fruits de mer, hand-pounded carpaccio, hand-shaped pasta. But even though the cooking methods are time-tested, there’s a flair for the dramatic, with unusual florals and spices, and every dish has a subtle twist to heighten the senses. The pork chop, which has been on the menu since early days, is a prime example: They use a thick, rustic cut of pork and brine the chops for up to two full days to make sure every juicy bite is rich with garlic and fennel. But there’s another flavor that haunts it: a whiff of lavender, harking back to Provence.

John Clark and Gayle Pirie at their apartment in Western Addition in 1987 
John Clark and Gayle Pirie at their apartment in Western Addition in 1987

Clark and Pirie met while working at Vicolo Pizza near Civic Center in 1984. Pirie, who’s a native San Franciscan, had been riding the bus to restaurant jobs since high school, and had no particular aspirations in food — making bulk mayo was a job to support painting classes at San Francisco State. Clark was finishing up his degree there, and thinking about architecture school. He made pizza, she made salad, and they both had different boyfriends and girlfriends.

“John was a punk, going to underground music shows all over the city,” Pirie says. “And I was a quiet art kid. But we had the same artistic proclivities, and were drawn to the same music, books, and films.” Clearly, there was an attraction: They walked to work together and found other after shifts, continually trying and failing to be friends. Until one day, they got into a fight on the line, which seemed to charge things in the right way. Clark turned up apologetic on the sidewalk outside of Pirie’s cheap apartment in Western Addition, and that was the catalyst for a romantic relationship. “I stuck my head out the window,” Pirie says. “Then I let him up, and that was it.” Those other relationships dissolved, they moved in together, and they have been partners ever since, for more than 30 years.

Pirie loved the space at Zuni Cafe, which had been open for six years at the time — particularly the airy nest up on the second story. On a whim, she walked in and chatted with the chef, who hit it off with the young artist. Clark was shocked that his girlfriend could just walk into such a serious restaurant and get a job, and he immediately applied as well. They both started from the bottom, stirring polenta, rolling gnocchi, breaking down ducks, learning to respect the ingredients, and avoid manipulating food too much. “You have to remember, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was so much invention with fusion and hybrids,” Gayle says. “Judy’s food was soul satisfying. It inspired us to go back to the source.”

Gayle Pirie, Judy Rodgers, and John Clark at Zuni Cafe in 1988 
Gayle Pirie, Judy Rodgers, and John Clark at Zuni Cafe in 1988
John Clark and Gayle Pirie in Paris in 1989
John Clark and Gayle Pirie in Paris in 1989

The young couple’s passion for food and restaurants grew. They started running up their credit cards on meals at Stars and driving across the bridge to eat at Chez Panisse. If Jeremiah Tower or Alice Waters was serving an old dish from famed food writers like Elizabeth David or Richard Olney, they would go to used bookstores to dig up and study the original recipes. Fueled by curiosity, they steadily moved up the line into chef de cuisine roles, tag teaming to run the kitchen. If one was working lunch, the other would work dinner, then switch. Sometimes Clark would come back into the restaurant after his shift, slide behind the copper bar, have a glass of wine, and read something like food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin while waiting for Pirie to finish up service.

After seven years at Zuni, the young guns were given an opportunity to travel to Hong Kong and open up a new restaurant on behalf of Judy Rodgers, bringing her now-famous style halfway around the world. Six months in China stretched into seven years consulting around the world for various restaurants, from Los Angeles to New York to Asia. By the turn of the millennium, they were back in the Bay, living in Berkeley with their first baby, Magnus. Feeling the freelance burnout, they grew marijuana in the backyard just to pay for health insurance. Pirie says, “I still have this recurring nightmare of the cops banging on the door to arrest me. We never wanted to open a restaurant. Are you kidding? We just needed jobs.”

The Foreign Cinema dining room under construction in 1999
The Foreign Cinema dining room under construction in 1999

Foreign Cinema had already opened a couple of years earlier in 1999. At the time, the neighborhood was far from the starred dining destination it is today, more notorious for gangs, drugs, and shootings.

“The Mission has always been in flux and change, with 100 years of history, first inhabited by Irish and Italian families, followed by Chinese and Latin communities,” Clark says.

“But at that point, every single day, you’d see guys pissing in broad daylight,” Pirie adds. “It was a scatalogical time.”

Foreign Cinema’s address at 2534 Mission Street had many past lives: as dollar, candy, and shoe stores, with optometry and medical offices in the mix. The courtyard was inhabited by rats and pigeons, and the wall was marked by bullets. It was a daunting renovation project.

The original founders were Jon Varnedoe, Michael Hecht, and Bruce McDonald. Varnedoe wanted to open a restaurant in order to revitalize the neighborhood, but his wife, Juliet, pointed out that the back wall was perfect for screening movies. They rolled in a 35-mm projector, bought at auction from the New Mission Theater (now restored as Alamo Drafthouse), and salvaged the wooden floorboards from the Cine Latino theater across the street, which was soon after demolished. When it opened, Foreign Cinema was a movie theater first and foremost, one that happened to throw some food and drinks onto the menu. By 2001, when Clark and Pirie were offered jobs as chefs, they took a seat at the bar and surveyed the dining room.

The Foreign Cinema dining room today in 2019
The Foreign Cinema dining room today in 2019
Foreign Cinema
The kitchen at Foreign Cinema Foreign Cinema

“It was an incongruous menu, this French bistro fare, with frozen frogs legs, frozen foie gras, and snails,” Pirie says. “The service had no sheen. But there was something else. We spent years fixing restaurants, and something didn’t smell right.”

It turned out what they smelled was desperation. The restaurant was on the brink of bankruptcy. Riding high on the dotcom boom, in order to finance it, the founders had sold shares to a long list of investors, “Club Med style,” and were struggling to pay them back. Within a few months, Clark and Pirie realized the extent of the damage. Bills were going unpaid. The trash stopped getting picked up. When the opening partnership started to crack under the financial pressure, McDonald, the original financier, finally approached Clark and Pirie. “There was this young man with a briefcase,” says Pirie. “He asked us, ‘So, how do you feel about bankruptcy? I may have a way to avoid that.’” McDonald took out additional loans and pulled from his own reserves in order to stave off Chapter 11 proceedings. He restructured the team, brought in Clark and Pirie as partners, and together, the three worked hard to pay off every single vendor and debt, as well as contractor fees and original building costs. McDonald remains their trusted business partner to this day.

The chefs overhauled the menu to bring the space to its full potential, returning to seasonal ingredients cooked with old soul. Flipping through those first menus, it’s striking how timeless they are. Things like house-cured sardines with peppers, warm brandade with olives, local lettuces with herbs, California king salmon slow roasted with fresh fava beans could all play well today. For the past 18 years, they’ve been serving oysters stacked high into towers to create a Parisian-inspired spectacle. The carpaccio has never been frozen and thinly sliced, a common shortcut: Instead, it’s pounded out by hand, according to a traditional Italian method. The Caesar salad is always made fresh to order with eggs and anchovies, just as it was at Hayes Street Grill, which shared a back wall with Vicolo.

Unfortunately, for a fledgling business, the worst was far from over. 2001 was not the year to resuscitate a restaurant. With the dot-com bust, diners tightened their budgets, and when 9/11 hit, the city cleared out. Still, a few early fans kept them going. Marion Cunningham, seminal food writer and author of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, found her way in. She would often bring her old friend Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma, who would hand the keys to his Jaguar off to the valet.

Sticky bun at Foreign Cinema Foreign Cinema
Cocktails at Foreign Cinema Foreign Cinema

Michael Bauer, the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, liked the energy of the original restaurant in 1999, even if the snails were “overrated” and the frog legs a bit “iffy.” But coming back in September of 2001, he glowed, “Now the food is equal to the mood.” Mark Bittman of the New York Times came into town in December, working on a big story about eating in San Francisco. He made a reservation for 8:15 p.m., and his PR agent revealed it was his fifth dinner of the day. “Understandably exhausted, he took most of his food back to his hotel room in boxes,” says Pirie. “We packed it up to go ourselves.” Regardless, that review was good, if not a rave, and it sealed their fate. “The ladies from Pac Heights started showing up,” Pirie says. “That was the moment we knew we had made it.”

Next door to the right, sister bar Laszlo had already opened in 2000. Maxed out on budget, it started as a real dive, but in 2016 Clark and Pirie went back to the original architecture plans, putting in dark trim, mirrors, and leather snugs. To this day, Pirie uses the space as a place to spin records from her personal vinyl collection once a month, as her alter ego DJ Lil’Bit. “I play a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” Pirie says. She has a penchant for English goth rock, including Peter Murphy, the Cramps, and King Crimson, but also puts on Nancy Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald depending on the crowd.

Of the many celeb sightings in the restaurant over the years, Clark regards musicians as the royalty: from Tom Waits and Tracy Chapman to Green Day and Beck. “I really wish Iron Maiden would come in,” he says.

To the left of the patio, an art gallery called Modernism West opened in 2005. Gallery owner Martin Muller was an early and loyal customer of Foreign Cinema, attending “Last Suppers” the last Sunday of every month with a salon of writers, painters, and other creatives. Pirie asked Muller if he had any interest in hanging art in the empty storefront behind the patio, and he must have been a visionary himself, because the ramshackle former shoe store was filled with just as much rubble as the courtyard had been in 1999. But he famously and succinctly took one look and declared, “I’m in.” The team cleared it out, painted the walls white, and to this day, Muller brings in rotating exhibits. At any break in a meal, diners can step into Modernism West and stroll through the exhibit for a quiet moment.

By the restaurant’s fifth anniversary, after clawing up and out of the recession, everyone was ready for a rager. Foreign Cinema anniversaries have become known as parties of epic proportions. These blowouts typically include all kinds of performers, from roller girls and drag queens to circus jugglers and fire breathers. “They throw a hell of a party,” says Craig Stoll, who opened Delfina restaurant nearby around the same time, and has been a friend and regular for years. “Like the time they did an eight-and-a-half-year anniversary. Who thinks of that? It was brilliant.” The parties bring the community together, and proceeds go to local organizations in the Mission, including kids’ foundations, employment services, and queer rights advocates.

John Clark and Gayle Pirie in 1999
John Clark and Gayle Pirie in 1999
Magnus in the kitchen in 2002
Magnus in the kitchen in 2002
Father and son in the kitchen today
Father and son in the kitchen today

Today, Clark and Pirie’s son, Magnus, is 20: the exact same age as the restaurant. He was only 2 years old when they came in as chefs, and he grew up in the space. He napped on the couch in the office, rolled around the patio on a scooter, and got into numerous scrapes, including getting stuck in the ice machine. These days, he works a few shifts a week. Their daughter, Pearl, is 14, and a little more cautious about setting foot in the kitchen. Pirie’s father was also a presence for many years, working the host stand as an octogenarian in patent shoes and a bow tie. He died a few years ago, but ladies of his generation still ask after him.

Today, Pirie and Clark feel lucky to still be in this space, but they also experience the pressure of gentrification in the Mission. “It’s a troubling time for the neighborhood, as people are being forced out and [we’re] feeling the pressure to maintain our heritage,” says Clark.

“We’ve weathered so much in 20 years,” adds Pirie. “Yet we still feel so inspired, and unjustifiably hopeful for the future.”

The entrance to Foreign Cinema in 2019
The entrance to Foreign Cinema in 2019

San Francisco Restaurant Openings

Vegan Lumpia and Lechon Sisig Carbonara Shine at This Tiny New SoMa Restaurant

The Move

This Sunny Weekend, Grab a Musubi and a Latte and Hit the Great Highway

Three Hotly Anticipated Bay Area Restaurant Openings Not to Miss This Spring