I still remember it as clear as day, waiting around at the August 1999 opening party for Foreign Cinema for a helicopter to make its splashy arrival to deposit a massive Jesus statue in the interior courtyard, replicating the scene in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
Talk about making a grand entrance into San Francisco’s dining scene.
Unfortunately, after that mega buildup, it actually never came to pass — the statue was deemed to heavy for the helicopter. But the party went on, a prescient symbol of how this restaurant would roll with the punches, not only surviving but flourishing, in the years to come.
Today, when the Mission District has become ground zero for the changes that the booming tech economy has brought to the Bay Area, Foreign Cinema is still going strong. At a time when animosity grows as working-class families are priced out of the neighborhood, new pricey condo complexes get built, and hipster businesses move in, this vibrant restaurant is still embraced and beloved.
The cavernous space once housed at various times a 99-cent store, a See’s Candies store, a sportswear retailer, medical offices and a shoe emporium. When the properties were connected and transformed for the restaurant, pinewood flooring and metal railing were scavenged from an old Latino theater across the street that was being dismantled, immediately giving it a sense of place.
Gayle Pirie and John Clark took over the restaurant in 2001, when it was teetering on bankruptcy following the dot-com bust and turned it around.