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    Al Fresco Dining and a Show? That and More at San Francisco’s 20-Year-Old Foreign Cinema

    By David Landis–

    What is it about a dinner and a show that makes a night on the town special? The combination of good food and an enlivening artistic endeavor just makes for a great date night. And it’s even better when it’s one-stop shopping.

    That’s the idea behind the nearly 20-year-old Foreign Cinema, San Francisco’s Mission District restaurant that marries innovative California cuisine with screenings of foreign films in its convivial outdoor courtyard.

    And, did you know that Foreign Cinema has one of the few lesbian wine directors around?

    “As far as fine dining restaurants, there aren’t many lesbian wine directors,” explains Foreign Cinema’s dynamic General Manager and Wine Director Shannon Tucker to me for the San Francisco Bay Times. “I was very lucky. I interned at Chez Panisse and then I worked for Tartine Bakery in the early 2000s. I had bartended in college. When they were planning Bar Tartine, they asked me to work behind the bar there. I said yes, but maybe I should learn about wine. They introduced me to the wine buyer, Steve Kopp. He told me that I needed to taste to learn about wine. After that, the (now defunct) wine-focused restaurant Bacar offered me a sommelier position, so I worked there from 2006–2008. That’s where I went through testing and got to taste even more wine.”

    Photo Courtesy of Ghost Media Inc.

    She continued, “I grew up in Europe and we would have wine with dinner every night. Wine has become more a part of American food culture now. When I originally took over at Foreign Cinema 8 years ago, I wanted the restaurant to be a place where you can get a really great bottle of wine, without such a formal atmosphere. Foreign Cinema can change, depending on what you’re looking for. You can go for a casual dinner or a full, special memorable evening. There aren’t many restaurants in San Francisco where you can do that. The wine list mirrors that approach. It takes away a lot of scariness. Wine shouldn’t be intimidating—it should be all about pleasure.”

    Shannon Tucker, Foreign Cinema’s General Manager and Wine Director. (Photo by Leonard Martin Hughet)

    The approach is informal, but the selection is formidable. Tucker has expanded the wine selections to include almost 1400 labels, which is among the largest of such offerings in San Francisco. Does she have a favorite wine on the menu? “The wine menu changes, but there are a couple that we always serve. The Asti Spumanti is always on the menu, because it’s my wife’s favorite wine. It’s made in the champagne method, a single vineyard. It’s a wine that was industrialized, but if made well is delicious.”

    (The Gay Gourmet can attest to how surprising the Aspi Spumanti is. When visiting there recently with my niece, she ordered it and I thought, “Uh-oh.” And then when you taste it, it’s crisp, effervescent, dry and delicious.)

    “I like to offer wine that surprises people,” Tucker says. “I love Eastern European and Loire Valley wines—the esoteric wines are the ones I’m passionate about.”

    “When I started, they asked me about winemaker dinners,” she adds. “And I thought: what about doing it differently, inviting a winemaker in and have wines by the glass, but have it be for everyone at the restaurant? This goes along with making wine more accessible. Now, we do these winemaker dinners every other month. We have a good mix of sommeliers—some well-known and some not so well-known. I try to make it affordable.”

    Tucker has a funny story about one of her first experiences at Foreign Cinema: “I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, but I also lived in the Bay Area when I was a teenager. We used to celebrate birthdays at Foreign Cinema. On one of my birthdays, my Dad had brought back a firecracker candle from Hong Kong that set the tablecloth on fire!”

    What are Tucker’s favorite dishes at Foreign Cinema? “I’m a sucker for the brandade (which is a blend of salt cod, potatoes, garlic and chilies; served with house pickles and grilled bread). I would eat it all the time. It goes with white wine, red and sparkling. I also love anything from the raw bar: oysters, crab or whatever is fresh.”

    When we dined there, we can attest to the freshness of the oysters: we started with Mad King, Sea Hag and Olympia oysters (with the tasty Asti Spumanti); my husband had the Chateau de Peyrassol still rosé wine (in preparation for an upcoming trip to Provence). From there, we shared an utterly delicious and inventive soup with an unusual combination: apple, turnip, cream and spices; an uber-fresh Hamachi; a just-caught halibut (cooked perfectly, still moist) with seasonal, flavorful fava beans; five-spice duck breast, duck leg confit, peach, fava beans, butter beans, celery root and breadcrumbs; and a sesame fried chicken, crispy and tender.

    What I love about the menu is the unexpected combinations. Dinner offerings include such dishes as New Bedford sea scallops with Thai coconut curry broth, sweet potato, Tokyo turnips, cumin basmati, poppadum and toasted peanuts; Pacific swordfish, Moroccan blood oranges, mojo verde, papas bravas, almond romesco, roasted kale and Meyer lemon mayo; Acquerello risotto scented with saffron, English peas, asparagus, chard, toasted garlic, Dutch fontina and Parmigiano Reggiano; or a heritage brined pork chop, tabil spiced, grilled plum, smoky shell beans, spring onions and chicories with balsamic jus.

    Because Karl the Fog was having one of his episodes, we opted to sit inside—but the atmosphere there is just as lively and fun as outside.

    If you want to take Foreign Cinema home with you, you can purchase The Foreign Cinema Cookbook, Recipes and Stories Under the Stars. And since the restaurant is celebrating its 20th anniversary this fall, stay tuned for some special events. A special Fellini-themed 20th anniversary party will take place on September 19 and will benefit a local charity. Some of the upcoming winemaker events include: Ghostwriter with Kenny Likitprakong on July 18; En Cavale & Methode Sauvage with Wolfgang Weber and Chad Hinds on September 12; and Nouveau Beaujolais and Cru Beaujolais (aka Bojo Fest) with Sam Imel of Kermit Lynch on November 21.

    So, grab your date (or just yourself), bring a sweater (just in case) and get ready to celebrate al fresco as Foreign Cinema enters its third decade of great food and entertainment.

    For more information or to make reservations, visit Foreign Cinema online at:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a PR executive. Follow him: @david_landis, email him at: or visit online at: