More than a restaurant, Foreign Cinema is a San Francisco landmark. In the heard of the Mission district, amidst cheap taquerias, dollar stores and out-of-business facades, a somewhat discreet door hides an impressive multiplex of lofty rooms that together make one of the most remarkable spaces in the city. Ten years after this door first opened, in the peak of the dotcom era, the address doesn’t seem to have lost its relevancy and popularity. Something impressive in a city where restaurants come and go like Internet startups.
The main space is bookended by a large open kitchen and a bar. The room also features a big wood-burning fireplace. Very high ceilings with bulb clusters add a faint yellow light to the naturally bright space, thanks to 4 large skylights and windows.
Steel rebar protrude through the concrete walls giving the space a modern, industrial feel contrasted by rustic hardwood floors and arts & crafts furniture.
An ample courtyard fits 3 long rows of tables, neatly aligned underneath sometimes too warm heat lamps. Above them, a plastic tent roof diffuses the morning Sun and offers shelter for an eventual drizzle. It’s here that, starting at dusk, vintage movies are projected against a large concrete wall. In my last dinner at Foreign Cinema, the 1971 classic “Fiddler on the roof” was screened on the background as I starred at my delicious pork chops. Even though few people actually watch the movies, the concept makes it for one of the most original restaurants in San Francisco. Absolutely worth the visit, even for brunch when there are no matinees.
A third space is the more recent takeover of the next-door art gallery where a few tables are surrounded by abstract art. In my last visit, artist Charles Arnoldi’s large acrylic paintings were in display. Despite the compelling artwork, the space feels cold and isolated from the lively ambiance found in the other 2 dining rooms.
In addition to the 3 main rooms, Foreign Cinema also features a mezzanine, a director’s table in the projection room and a bar/lounge.
Even fitting nearly 200 people, the popularity of the restaurant calls for advance reservations–which will guarantee you a table in your room of choice. Once seated, relax and enjoy the scenery. Service can be spotty at times; it may be rushed and indifferent but, for the most part, it is pretty efficient.
The restaurant is well known for its Californian/Mediterranean dinner fare but its brunch menu is also very appetizing. In addition to a good variety of organic egg dishes, other lunch-like options include croque monsieur and a popular roasted chicken. To start, “Weekend picnic” items include house made “Pop Tarts” and about 10 salads and antipasto. The restaurant is also one of the very few in the city to offer 10 types of fresh oysters for brunch.
Complimentary still and sparkling water is served in glass bottles. Coffee is from Caffé Roma, the artisan roaster in North Beach; brewed on the strong side. Juices include house made lemonade and sweet, fresh squeezed OJ.
To start, Orange marmelade “Pop Tarts”, a good choice for the table to share. About the size of a paperback, the flat pastry is flaky and buttery. Fillings change every week and can include apple, figs and kumquats.
Smoked salmon, egg crostini, organic walnut bread, citrusy watercress salad. A tasty dish of chopped eggs on toasted bread served with smooth, tender smoked salmon. There’s only one catch; this dish is small. Too small for a main course; unless of course you had a couple of the pop tarts.
Poached eggs: Moroccan duck breast, endive, frisee, croutons, tapenade, shallot-herb vinaigrette. A very tasty dish with tender, flavorful duck and perfectly cooked eggs. It could probably use a little less sauce but that’s my only criticism.
Dungeness crab frittata: potatoes, tomato vinaigrette, red mustards, Manchego. Another tasty option, albeit not as complex in flavors as the previous two.
Slow-cooked scrambled eggs, black truffle, buttery breadcrumbs, parsley, arugula, Parmesan. I’m usually skeptical when it comes to truffles appearing on most menus as that usually means cheap truffle essence oils drizzled over the food. I wasn’t expecting table shaved fungus on my scrambled eggs but was pleasantly surprised with what was served. The moist eggs are infused with a pungent aroma from finely minced black truffles, nicely balanced with the its other ingredients.
Baguette French toast: huckleberry sauce, orange butter & maple syrup. Second only to Canteen’s, this custard-soaked pain perdú is very good.
On the side, Slow-cooked brown sugar organic smoked bacon and Foreign Cinema’s chicken sausage. Both are great, while the sweetness of the former may surprise those hoping a salty pork accompaniment, the latter is flavorful and juicy.
For dessert, in case you’re left hungry after the small crostini, try the Cardamon Cake. Despite looking dry, the fluffy, aromatic cake is nicely complemented by mascarpone and caramel sauce.
But the biggest surprise came in a secret dish that stormed past our table in the hands of a rushed waitress. “What is this?”–we asked stopping her on her tracks. With a slight irritated undertone she responded: “Beignets”.
Here’s something you should know about me; I love beignets. But despite reading the menu carefully, I don’t remember seeing them there. “They are not on the menu”–our waitress admitted with some hesitation. Realizing she had not much of a choice–while we starred at her with a mix of bewilderment and salivation, she offered to bring us some. As a beignet enthusiast I can say with authority that Foreign Cinema’s are some of the best I ever had. Delightfully crispy and creamy. But is it possible that the best thing on the menu is not actually on the menu? Apparently it is. The restaurant prepares the deep fried treats ad hoc and send them to some lucky tables.
So I hereto would like to start a menu petition, for equal rights on deep-fried delicacies. If you go to Foreign Cinema for brunch, order the beignets. Simply pretend they are in the menu.
With about 5000sq feet of beautiful industrial-chic space, this Mission district restaurant is a rare example of originality in a city notorious for somewhat bland interior designs. When it comes to the food, the brunch fare at Foreign Cinema is as good as its popular dinner. A very appetizing selection of inventive dishes, carefully conceived and prepared. I may even say it’s the best brunch in San Francisco. That, if you can get a beignet.
Foreign Cinema is at 2534 Mission St.