Popcorn is an essential part of the moviegoing experience.
Tasty popcorn and a refreshing beverage can turn a mediocre time into an “Eh, I guess that was pretty good!” movie. It’s possible that Big Snack has totally scrambled my brain, but be that as it may, I stand by this opinion.
With that in mind, the best place to get movie theater popcorn in San Francisco is The Castro Theatre. I have sampled this salty snack far and wide, and this is what I’ve found.
I will not pretend to be whatever the popcorn equivalent of a sommelier is — although I have eaten, conservatively, several times my body weight in popcorn in the last year — but I will tell you this: The popcorn itself tastes good and fresh, they butter it for you, and it comes in a paper bag (which feels more authentic). Per the theater general manager, their popcorn is sourced from a farm in Sutter County, and has been for the past 15 years. Delightful!
Other San Francisco theaters have extremely solid popcorn, including Balboa Theatre, Embarcadero Center Cinema, and Alamo Drafthouse. I personally find the Alamo popcorn, which starts at $8, to be a bit expensive. It comes in a large bowl with free refills, but I usually can’t finish a medium popcorn at The Castro Theatre ($5.75), so the extra value is lost on me. For nine whole real American dollars, you can get churro popcorn or truffle parmesan popcorn at the Alamo instead. I prefer boring-ass popcorn myself, but perhaps you are a more adventurous popcorn soul than I!
Generally, the smaller the theater, the better the popcorn. The worst movie theater popcorn in San Francisco is at the big chain theaters — AMC in particular, which makes you butter your own popcorn. This is heresy. Proper movie theater popcorn is buttered at the halfway point and again at the top. Buttering it once leads to an uneven distribution and a particularly dry bottom half of popcorn.
I am also willing to wager that most moviegoers are like me: Inexperienced at buttering their own popcorn, especially with the awkward “butter” dispensers at AMC that often don’t work or run out of butter or work too well and give you a disgustingly buttered section of popcorn to work around. It’s a cliche that the person behind the counter at the movie theater is a pimply-faced teen working a summer job, but that teen butters more popcorn in a day than you have in your whole life (unless you were said teen at one point, I suppose).
Century Theater popcorn isn’t good, but at least you aren’t made to suffer the indignity of adding that delicious fat to your own snack. Part of what you’re paying for is the plausible deniability of a third party choosing how much delicious butter you consume.
Anyway, being forced to butter your own popcorn is a crime, and we should celebrate local movie theaters that recognize this. Pop by the Castro and get some refreshment.