Fellini’s La Dolce Vita famously opens with a helicopter transporting a statue of Jesus above Rome, followed by tabloid journalist Marcello Rubini in a second helicopter. From the air, Rubini attempts to procure the phone number of some women sunbathing on a rooftop.
That’s one definition of “the sweet life,” but when Foreign Cinema turns 20 on Thursday, Sept. 19, it’s offering a slightly different vision to cinephilic fans of a two-decade-old restaurant with al fresco movies.
Since 1999, chef-owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark have mastered the concept of a restaurant meal as an experience that transcends what’s merely on the plate, crowned by excellent wine pairings and screening of classics from the Silent Era to the Coen Brothers. Innovative California-Mediterranean dishes like sea bass ceviche with avocado, spring onion, and habanero or a lavender-brined pork chop with a Gravenstein apple smash are what helped earn Foreign Cinema a number of James Beard nominations, but it’s the overall ambience that won all those hearts and minds. Seasonality and a connection between diner and farmer are all but expected now, but the project has never grown stale in spite of all the imitators. (And in fact, the team opened the attached cocktail bar Laszlo, giving it a refresh in 2016.)
So for the 20th anniversary, they’re going to get a little Fellini-esque about it, and not in a Euro-surrealist way that involves taking a sauna with a Catholic cardinal to work through your writer’s block. Instead, they’re playing up the Italian dimension to Pirie and Clark’s cooking for an evening of decadent fun, with lots of theatrical costumes and performances by Greganelo’s Velocity Arts & Entertainment (the highbrow circus troupe known for its site-specific shows). Because of Foreign Cinema’s strong connection to the Mission, it’s partly a benefit for the family-centered nonprofit Mission Neighborhood Center as well as 826 Valencia and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. And while it’s bound to be a very stylish affair, no one will be hauling a huge and symbolically freighted fish monster out of the sea.
Foreign Cinema Turns 20
Thursday, Sept. 19, 6-11 p.m., at Foreign Cinema, 2534 Mission St., foreigncinema.com