Last week, I dined with Yoda, ET and a Storm Trooper.
They and other iconic characters from mega-director George Lucas’ films were on hand in the form of models, statues and bobble heads when I was lucky enough to step foot inside the Lucasfilm Letterman Digital Arts Center in the magnificent Presidio in San Francisco to enjoy an al fresco lunch.
Oh, sure, you can snap photos of the Yoda fountain at the entrance, and walk inside the lobby to see a life-size Darth Vader. But that’s as far as you can get unless you get an invitation to the Friday “Friends & Family” day each week. Yup, you have to know someone who works there to get an “in.”
That’s how I managed to get a peek inside last Friday, thanks to my friend Tami of the stylish blog, Fête à Fête, and her fiance, Gio, who is a model builder for Lucasfilm. How cool a job is that? Gio took time out from his busy schedule to show me around.
Like many Silicon Valley tech campuses, Lucasfilm has a gourmet cafe on site. But hands down, this one has got to have the most breathtaking view around. Replete with heavy-duty wood chairs and tables on open-air terraces, the Lucasfilm cafe is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. On one side looms the landmark Golden Gate Bridge; on the other, the grand ornate dome of the Palace of Fine Arts that looks so enormous and near, you’d swear it must be a painting. Oh, but it’s not.
While Silicon Valley tech employees often get the perk of subsidized or free meals (Yes, Google, I’m talkin’ about you), at Lucasfilm, employees pay full price. But the quality is so high, not many seem to mind.
Food service company, Guckenheimer, runs this cafe, which serves about 80 breakfasts and 800 lunches daily, says manager Danielle Hamilton. With the exception of the breads, and common condiments such as mustard and ketchup, most everything else is made from scratch, including the garden burger, potato chips and salad dressings.
The menu changes daily with about 20 specials. The seafood used is almost always rated “best choice” for sustainability by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide.
The offerings are designed to showcase local and organic ingredients, some of which come from Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. Vegetables grown on the ranch star in the salad bar and entrees. The produce is also for sale at a Thursday farmers market set up near the cafe in the summer and fall. Occasionally, employees are lucky enough to find Wagyu beef burgers on the menu, too — made from cattle raised on the ranch. With the help of winemaker and director, Francis Ford Coppola, grapes grown on Skywalker Ranch are crushed and turned into wine, which is available only at the gift shop at Lucasfilm.
Every Friday at the cafe, there’s a burrito station. At the pizza oven, the most popular pie is the Buffalo chicken one. There’s a whole station devoted to vegetarian dishes. And every day, one entree is offered that has 500 calories or less.
Guest chefs come through regularly, too, to give talks, sign cookbooks and to showcase their cooking. Among them have been Nancy Oakes of San Francisco’s Boulevard and Annie Sommerville of San Francisco’s Greens. Later this year, Ruth Reichl, former editor in chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, will visit.
The afternoon I dined, I enjoyed a vibrant dish of Malaysian chicken and tofu curry with a creamy, lime-infused coconut broth over Jasmine rice. A nice touch was the little wedge of cilantro pancake propped on the side. At $8.51, it was a generous portion, and I loved that it was cooked to order in front of me.
The offices and desks are off-limits to visitors to guard against info leaking out about projects in progress. But walk down most any hallway and you’ll find yourself smiling at familiar characters used in the films, including ET riding a bicycle, Slimer from “Ghostbusters” (who could definitely use a good dental hygienist), little dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park,” and mock-ups of Curious George.
There’s one corridor lined with framed posters, showing the breadth of movies the company has worked on. Some will surprise you, such as “Punch-Drunk Love,” the Adam Sandler-vehicle that is absent of monsters, aliens and the like, which immediately jump to mind with so many Lucas films.
If you need a pick-me-up, duck into the Javva the Hutt coffee bar down another hallway. There’s even a real model of its namesake, slug-like “Star Wars” character, Jabba the Hut, mounted on a wall, clutching his own coffee cup.
Visitors on “Friends & Family” day also get treated to a presentation in the 298-seat, state-of-the-art, THX-equipped private theater, showcasing trailers for films to come, as well as a mesmerizing montage that shows how effects go from rough sketch to computer-generated reality.
At the end of this wide-eyed-wonder afternoon, I gave a final wave to ET, then stepped outside into the real world again, already missing the magic inside.