Many restaurants don't make it to the 15-year mark, so San Francisco's Foreign Cinema — the Mission District's hybrid restaurant/venue — celebrated in style. "We have this quinceañera, so in the most phenomenal, beautiful way, we will present Foreign Cinema as the girl to become a woman," laughs co-owner Gayle Pirie. Pirie and her husband/partner John Clark, who together took over the restaurant in 2001, dreamed up a coming-out party featuring drag queens and Wizard of Oz-themed performances, an appropriately eclectic mix for the restaurant that Pirie calls the "most sensual experience you can possibly have while having dinner."
Dinner at Foreign Cinema aims to hit all the senses, not just "taste." Every night, Foreign screens a movie in its outdoor courtyard, highlighting everything from Rebel Without a Cause to Spike Jonze's Her. Martin Muller, the founder of 34-year-old Mission District gallery Modernism West, curates the gallery space. Dinner itself can occur in a variety of on-site spaces: patios, mezzanines, courtyards, bars. (SF Chronicle critic Michael Bauer, a longtime fan, has called the eclectic place one with "something for everyone.") Pirie recently talked with Eater about creating that multi-sensory experience, the evolution of the Mission District, and how Foreign Cinema weathered the dot-com bust to make its quinceañera particularly sweet.
Foreign Cinema had already been open for a couple of years when you took it over. Do you and John remember your first visit to the restaurant?
Oh, absolutely. It was April 2001, and we had been courted by the partners to take it over, so we had dinner there. We'd heard a lot about it but had never dined there. We remember sort of a mediocre experience, because it was cavernous and a little cold... but the bones of the place just seemed spectacular. We liked the vibe of it. It definitely felt like another chef's restaurant, which was fine, it's just that we were excited to take it to another level. I remember I was struck how there were odd things on the menu, like bell peppers and eggplants in April. I just thought, "It doesn't feel like spring at all." That was one thing that really resonated with me. I couldn't wait to make the building and the space and the geography really reflect the time of year. At that point, the restaurant had been open about a year and a half.
I read your blog post about how overwhelming those first few weeks were: What was going on at that time?
There was a major shake-up within the company itself. It was a complex matrix of managing partners who were operations and founding fathers... but the whole thing was starting to dissolve pretty quickly. Despite everyone's wonderful intentions and visions, there was a lot of inherent corruption and confusion and costs run amok, and high food costs, high labor. [It was a] great vessel with a lot of people running around, and really nobody holding down the fort. So there was a major reshuffling of power there, and that just compounded a lot of the other stressful stuff, like hiring cooks and getting the place going again.
The people who were there spending hundreds of dollars on champagne evaporated.
And the city had gone through a huge financial bust: That was smack dab in the middle of that dot-com bust. People who were there spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on champagne had evaporated. There was this pretty quick rise to the top for the place, and I don't think they… had their finger on the pulse. It was a lot of confusion. It was certainly, definitely, for us, World War III. It certainly added a few lines to my face.
With all this internal drama, was there ever a moment where you looked at each other and said, "Maybe this is not the best idea"?
Oh, for two years [Laughs] we looked at each other. But we were committed at that point, and once we log on to something, we make it work. That's our nature. We don't take failure lightly. I think we looked at each other for two to five years like, "What are we doing?" It wasn't until we went to the financial partner that was left after the big shake-up, and said, "We can't do this without ownership. It's too big, it's too stressful. There's just no way we can do this without having any kind of ownership." At that point, we forged a plan for ownership as a partnership with him, and weathered all those storms. There's been a lot of storms. Times are good right now, but we're used to the cycle of boom-bust. So even though things are good, really good, we never lose our humility.
How do you and John you balance work and home?
That's a huge question, and it has certainly morphed. In the first four or five years, we were there together every day as co-chefs: Writing menus, training cooks, expediting service, developing private events. We did it together. Our son would be with us. We had another child in '05, and we wrote another cookbook. That changed everything. We decided to split it up at that point — so he would run it part of the week, and then I would run it part of the week — while we raised our new baby. Since we've divvied it up, I would say it works out pretty well. There is friction: We've been together 25 years, friction is naturally occurring. But if you use it as a tool and learn from it, you become a better chef yourself.
Let's look back to 2001. What was the neighborhood like back then, when you first took over the restaurant?
There was basically poop on our doorstep every morning.
It was pretty rough. I would say, if I can be brutally frank, there was basically poop on our doorstep every morning. It was very third-world: a lot of drugs, a lot of crime, and a lot of guys urinating in pure daylight. That's changed. The street tightened up a bit. Valencia was always sort of charming, but Mission was really pretty rough. After 9p.m., it'd be very quiet, dark, and desolate. On our block of Mission, there have been several developments trying to get off the ground, which are now completely in fruition. But at the time, there were two empty theaters, an empty bar space, and two stores down, an empty space. Of course, now, it's a completely different picture. [Laughs]
I remember being kind of pissed that we were in this Mission neighborhood [at first]. I remember just being like... "Frick." We loved the building, we loved the space, but the neighborhood was really a set-back all the time for us, in those early years. But even in the darkest times there was always a silver lining, because we were passionately in love with the geography of the place itself. That was always the hope and the light.
What were some of the first changes you made once you fully took over the space?
The menu changed daily. It went from a monthly change to a daily change. We extended the oyster bar triple-fold. We removed frozen frog legs off the menu forever. We thought there should always be two sustainable fish, always a vegetarian option, and then always two salads, if not three, with vegetarian components at the top. That took place immediately. We expanded the menu by about four dishes. We expanded the oyster bar by about six or seven oyster selections.
In making a dramatic menu change, did get any pushback? Or maybe did you find yourself having to manage diners' expectations?
There was a lot of bad blood floating around, I won't sugarcoat it.
Yeah, there was some blow back, I think from [previous chef] Laurent [Katgely]'s followers. There was a lot of bad blood floating around, I won't sugarcoat it. It was a tumultuous end for that chef, but he had something brewing so he went right into the next venture, which was extremely successful. We didn't know him very well at all, we just wanted to get through it... It was cantankerous and a little bit petty-minded, I will say that, but it blew over pretty quickly.
Clients readily accepted a dynamic, changing menu. And it wasn't like we were doing crazy shit every day. Then, of course, 9/11 came in September, and that was absolutely a wipe-out. That was certainly part of... it's a part of our DNA now, arriving in July and having this catastrophic world event. It decimated San Francisco, just decimated it. Everything was empty.
You mean in terms of the economy?
Oh, God, yes. Everything was just dead. Not only did we have the dot-com bust, people fleeing their offices and their businesses because their businesses were closing. Then 9/11 came, and further wiped out the entire economic landscape of San Francisco, I would say, for months. Empty hotel rooms, empty Fisherman's Wharf. It was empty. A huge tourist destination... everything stopped.
Was there a strategy you put in place to weather that?
Well, we thought we already had. We were doing daily-changing, sustainable menus, in the best way that we could: putting out really good value, keeping prices low. Then, I think Michael Bauer came in on September 20th or 19th, and had a couple of meals, and then delivered a great three-star review, and the place was absolutely packed. So from that whole scary September... by October, the place was absolutely filled to the gills.
Tell me about some of the challenges that come with running a multi-use space. How do you juggle all of that?
We feed on being able to create an evolved vision daily. It's invigorating to come in each day and think about how to make it better. It's a juggle, but at this point, after 13-and-a-half years, we feel like we have benefited from such a dynamic space… What we thrive on is creating the most sensual experience you can possibly have while having dinner.
What we thrive on is creating the most sensual experience you can possibly have while having dinner.
If it's beautiful images flickering across the wall while you're trying to forget the troubles of the day, and then being able to take a walk in the gallery after dinner. And then to have very sustaining food and thirst-quenching beverages and delicious wine. [We strive to] just make it this beautiful home where people can escape, while calling it their home. That's really sort of a fundamental for us. It may sound ironic, a destination that is both an escape but feels like home… it's kind of a conundrum. But we like to create that. So when you know you're trying to do that, it helps you to make great decisions about what the place should look like, where we should throw our resources. How to make it just the most rich experience, without it being the "food show."
Does it feel like it's been 13-and-a-half years for you at this restaurant?
Oh, yeah. You can tell on my face, yes. And there are markers. We have markers at 10, and at five, and at eight. We did an eight-and-a-half anniversary party, and that was visualized at six, because I thought, "Oh my God, we have to do an eight-and-a-half anniversary. Not an eighth, not a seventh, not a ninth," because it was based on Fellini's 8 1/2. It's always, just, try to keep it fun and not too serious, and to involve everybody's core interests. But that's hard to do all the time.
What are your plans for the years moving forward?
Keeping the gauntlet going, sometimes meaning staying involved on a daily basis in managing your managers. There will be a Foreign Cinema cookbook out within that time [by 2016], and there will be, hopefully, expansions of other concepts in the city, and possibly lunch service. Just keeping it fresh. It sounds really boring, but you know what? A lot of people have attention deficit disorder, where they can't figure anything out because they're bored with what they're doing. They forget about the most important aspects. They think about TV and all this other stuff. It's important just to keep the gauntlet going in the most fundamental way.