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Celluloid Dreams

[whitespace] Foreign Cinema
Livin' La Dolce Vita: Patrons at Foreign Cinema's summer prescreening enjoy the festive courtyard atmosphere.

An offbeat venue in the Mission adeptly merges fine eats with film treats

By Christine Brenneman

Standing in the cavernous space that will soon be the finished dining room of the ambitious cinema/bistro Foreign Cinema, one can sense the exciting pulse already being generated. A good vibe hovers over the sunny, exposed courtyard like alcohol on the breath of its future patrons. It could be the perfect blue sky in the Mission, the comfortingly open space of the venue or the engaging company of Foreign Cinema co-owners John Varnedoe and Michael Hecht, but all of these factors contribute to my generally tranquil demeanor and complete faith in a highly unorthodox venture.

Foreign Cinema, which plans to open its doors Aug. 8, bravely ventures where few venues have dared to tread: into the realm of running a serious French bistro combined with a movie theater featuring foreign fare, rarities and indies.


Film History: Foreign Cinema attempts to recall the Mission's former glory as a serious movie theater district.


In a city blitzkrieged with film festivals and world-renowned for its delectable cuisine, Varnedoe and Hecht certainly have their work cut out for them with this unusual venture. Luckily, they're both very well qualified for such an undertaking: Varnedoe is a former owner of Bruno's and Cafe du Nord, while Hecht recently received his M.B.A. from Stanford. Such credentials eliminate some of the guesswork, not to mention the fact that both of their wives--who are photographers and filmmakers--are heavily connected within the film community.

Passionate about film of all kinds, Varnedoe and Hecht modeled their venture on several sources. First and foremost, Varnedoe cites his visits to the illustrious Pizza and Pipes restaurant in his native Sacramento. When he was an angst-ridden teenager, the modest eatery gave Varnedoe "two precious hours of pepperoni and movies," and he wants to provide just such an escape for the patrons of Foreign Cinema. Hecht, on the other hand, recalls the magic of the film Cinema Paradiso, wherein an entire Italian town centers on the imagination and vicarious experiences available through the movie theater. He hopes Foreign Cinema will embody the jubilant spirit of that film.

Such high expectations might seem unreachable, but Varnedoe and Hecht have taken a 1920s building along Mission Street and turned it into their own version of a culinary and cinematic paradise. Through an 80-foot-long hallway--which heightens the sense of mystery created by a minimal street presence--one enters the Foreign Cinema realm, which seems a world away from the frenzy of Mission Street outside. An oversized hostess stand at the end of the hall serves as a gateway to the invitingly expansive courtyard and cavernous dining room.

An open kitchen and a full bar bookend the main eating area, complete with a fireplace and tall French doors opening to the divine courtyard. Intimate dining takes place in the mezzanine, which looks down upon the larger dining room. Behind the mezzanine lies the auspiciously named "Elvis" room, which will be available for private parties or screenings. Bars are situated nearly everywhere, ensuring that no one will go thirsty.

The enormous courtyard leaves the most lasting impression of any of the spaces within Foreign Cinema. A 25-by-30-foot cement wall with bullet holes functions as the main screen. Cocktail tables and large communal tables litter the area. The hosts equip each table with its own radio box, which will allow guests to control the volume of the movie being shown. With a feeling of perpetual summer, the open-air courtyard will most likely be the biggest draw of the venue, allowing patrons to drink, eat and watch movies. The space reminds Varnedoe of Fellini's Roma. In that film, as in the courtyard, he says, "There is this great sense of outside vibrant life. People are living life, in public, whether they're arguing or falling in love. Film and life combine here in this courtyard."

Although the name Foreign Cinema connotes a singular devotion to film, this venture is very much about wonderful bistro cuisine as well. Hecht and Varnedoe lured French chef Laurent Katgely from his post as chef at the chichi L.A. restaurant Pastis, and he has created a menu that promises to thrill even the most discriminating gourmands. Adventurous appetizers start the menu with such delicacies as frog legs fricassee and escargot casserole as well as lighter dishes such as Holland white asparagus salad with summer truffle vinaigrette. Entrees are to include such diverse selections as classic grilled rib-eye steak with pomme frites and the inventive summer squash petit farci with basil risotto. All items are reasonably priced--$5-$12 for appetizers and $11-$19 for entrees--and, of course, Katgely's tasty offerings will change with the seasons.

As for the films that will screen at Foreign Cinema, Varnedoe kids that this venue will specialize in "all virtually unpopular formats." In all seriousness, cinéasts of every sort will find something to their liking in the Foreign Cinema movie lineup; even better, every screening is free. Hecht and Varnedoe want Foreign Cinema to function like an ongoing film festival with classic films, shorts, independents, winning films from various film festivals, works in progress and, of course, foreign films. Films will screen nightly at 9pm in the courtyard when the venue opens; they plan to open an additional 130-seat indoor theater by the year 2000. Some hot titles from their sample film schedule include Antonioni's Red Desert, Murakami's Tokyo Decadence and Truffaut's Jules and Jim.

The unconventionality of Foreign Cinema comes as a breath of fresh air to the film and restaurant industries of San Francisco. Instead of going to the gerbil-tower movie multiplexes or a regular eatery, people will come to Foreign Cinema for a quality cinematic and culinary experience. Hecht says, "We're determined to do the food very well and the film very well and the total environment very well, whereas most places just focus on one aspect of the experience." Varnedoe adds, "This is a modern version of what went on in the French New Wave. People can come here and soak up film night after night after night" .

Foreign Cinema opens Aug. 8. It is located at 2548 Mission between 21st and 22nd streets. 415.648.7600.

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From the July 19, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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