Alamo Drafthouse, in San Francisco, shows new, old and odd films
Chicken-liver mousse pairs well with Colonial American horror, it turns out.
The recently opened, five-screen Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District offers a food menu consisting mostly of easy-to-eat-in-the-dark items common to dine-in theaters, such as pizza and sandwiches. But we started our meal, consumed while watching the low-budget, 17th-century New England-set film “The Witch,” with the menu’s most gourmet offering.
Fanciness seemed in keeping with a 1916 theater that had just undergone a $10 million, four-year-long rehab to restore it to its former grandeur, after some inglorious years spent as a mattress storage facility. The New Mission marks the first foray into California by Alamo Drafthouse, the Texas theater chain that popularized the idea of in-theater drink and meal service.
The mousse went down smoothly, its sharpness cut by the huckleberry jam accompanying it. It remained palatable even during more disturbing moments of “The Witch,” in which bonnet-ruffling forces of evil beset a Puritan family.
Part of the ease with which our party of two consumed the mousse, along with a Brussels-sprouts salad, Nashville “hot chicken” sandwich, plus a Coke and a Knee Deep Citra Extra Pale Ale (the theater chain that put “draft” in its name offers 28 beers on tap, including this offering from Auburn), can be attributed to vast experience with movie-theater eating.
We’ve shoveled in popcorn, candy, nachos and reheated pizza while watching horror films since the 1980s. Made-to-order food prepared in a real kitchen, led by a real chef (Ronnie New, formerly of San Francisco’s Comstock Saloon), and served to us at the table between our seats felt less like a foreign concept than a luxurious extension of past experiences (though neither the $16 sandwich nor $12 salad tasted near as good as the $11 mousse).
Noise from other patrons always has been harder to stomach. But there were no distractions when we saw “The Witch” at a packed weekend showing in February. Maybe it was because people knew they were being watched, by the cadre of servers who stand in the back of the theater’s large main auditorium, looking for patrons to place order forms in slots at the front of tables.
Or perhaps moviegoers were aware of Alamo’s reputation for kicking out rude people. Alamo once turned an angry voicemail left by a patron ejected for texting into a profanity-laced ad for the chain.
More impressive even than the hushed audience was the unobtrusive manner in which our server, through an expert series of ducks and bends, delivered our food. He was so stealthy that his appearance during a pivotal scene in “The Witch” did not diminish its impact.
This was our first experience with true dine-in movie magic.
At the other dine-in theaters we’d visited, including Rocklin’s Studio Movie Grill, the lighting is set to twilight, presumably to help guide servers, when movies need darkness. The service distracts as does a too-clear view of other moviegoers. The New Mission, by contrast, keeps things dark, relying on servers’ eagle eyes to spot order forms jutting from tables.
It took a few months after the New Mission opened in December with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to get the service model “dialed in” in the main auditorium where “The Witch” played, New Mission creative director Mike Keegan said.
Most of Alamo’s 24 theaters across the country were built new, and feature stadium seating with every other row missing, so servers do not invade viewers’ sight lines. Such is the case with the small auditoriums Alamo built in the New Mission’s former balcony spaces. But in the large, original auditorium, Alamo honored the theater’s city-landmark status by arranging the theater’s 324 seats on “the natural rake of the room,” Keegan said. “So it’s a lot of ducking” for servers.
Keegan discussed the renovation process while sitting, on an afternoon in early June, in one of the main auditorium’s new seats. These seats – comfortable without being rockers or recliners or otherwise too living-room-like – are among the many features that create a space that seems new and classic at once.
A 45-foot-wide screen shows super-bright SRX-R515DX digital projection in a room whose century-old, gold-leaf design flourishes register just as clearly. There’s also a 35-millimeter projector, for the New Mission’s many screenings of archival films.
The New Mission’s architectural details either are original or are, Keegan said, “meticulous re-creations of how this room opened in 1916.” The Alamo crew consulted old photos, newspaper ads and other historical resources during the long renovation process.
The New Mission’s original mirrors adorn the walls of the lobby, which holds a Deco-era plush sofa and vibrantly patterned carpeting.
One need not buy a ticket to get a look at the lobby of the New Mission, which sits on Mission Street between 21st and 22nd streets, to get a load of that lobby, or to enjoy a craftier-than-usual craft cocktail at Bear vs. Bull, a dark-as-midnight-at-noon bar that sits off to the side of it. Isaac Shumway, formerly of Tosca Cafe, heads up the bar crew.
At various times in its life, the New Mission showed A-level Hollywood films, C-level schlock, A-list films again – this time with Spanish subtitles to cater to the neighborhood’s large Latino population – and served as a mattress store that used the 1916 auditorium for storage. Pre-makeover photos hanging on the lobby’s wall show moldy mattresses beside crumbling moldings. By the time the picture was taken, the theater’s other longtime inhabitants – wild animals – had been shooed away.
The animals were “mostly aviary,” Keegan said with a laugh. “Lots of pigeons.”
Alamo founder and CEO Tim League has said that he chose San Francisco as his chain’s first California outpost (a downtown Los Angeles theater is in the works) for personal reasons, because his parents met in San Francisco and he was born in Berkeley.
Also, San Francisco has “a cosmopolitan audience,” Keegan said. “And it is kind of under-screened.”
Keegan used to program films for the Roxie, which sits nearby on 16th Street, and shows micro-indies. Several blocks west lay the still-stunning Castro Theatre, which shows old movies and holds special events. But there is not another multiplex showing first-run films for a few miles.
Alamo Drafthouse made its name by serving up beer and also idiosyncratic programming including exploitation films and musical sing-alongs (before that was a thing). But the chain – New Mission included – also shows blockbusters such as “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Captain America: Civil War.”
“The way I think about it is, we are a five-screen theater, (and) four screens are first-run and one screen is calendar programming,” Keegan said. On weekends, the New Mission fills up with patrons for regular programming. Most calendar programming happens on weekdays. But those events can fill up, too.
For instance, “Terror Tuesdays” – $5-admission late-night screenings of vintage horror films – draw more than 200 people per week, Keegan said. He hosts the “Terror Tuesday” programs, which through June carried a “summer camp” theme and included “Friday the 13th Part 2” and “Twitch of the Death Nerve” a.k.a “A Bay of Blood.”
The camp theme ran to a special themed menu that included an $8 “babes in a sleeping bag” take on pigs in a blanket. Add an $8, 20-ounce Knee Deep Citra Pale Ale, and that’s a fairly cheap dinner-and-a-movie night out in a very expensive city.
The New Mission, where prices in general run a bit lower than at San Francisco downtown multiplexes, also continues the Alamo legacy of showing the most obscure clip collections before features. “The Witch” clip pre-show included flickering, black and white images of the usual goats and pentagrams but also blips from “Hocus Pocus,” the 1993 Bette Midler-Sarah Jessica Parker comedy.
Alamo Drafthouse’s sweet spot, Keegan said, is independent cinema along the lines of “The Witch” and “The Lobster,” the current Colin Farrell-Rachel Weisz movie in which a dystopian government forces single people to either pair up romantically or be turned into animals.
“It feels like our identity is cool art-house stuff that might have genre elements to it, and that is not necessarily opening wide,” Keegan said.
The New Mission opened in a neighborhood in the midst of a cultural shift. An influx of Silicon Valley tech workers drawn by the neighborhood’s southern position within the city, and thus proximity to the valley, has flooded the neighborhood with new money. Landlords responded by jacking up rents and forcing many poor and middle-class people out of the neighborhood.
The New Mission sits amid other new-construction projects on a block growing less scruffy by the day. Yet the theater also provides links between today’s techie-laden Mission of high-end bakeries and boutiques and its past as a haven for working-class immigrants and starving artists.
Miguel Pacheco, 46, came to San Francisco from Mexico in the 1980s and remembers seeing Hollywood films with Spanish subtitles at the New Mission. As he and a friend sipped beers at Bear vs. Bull on a Saturday in February, he looked around the bar and outside it, to the theater lobby.
“It’s amazing, it’s wonderful,” Pacheco said of the theater’s transformation.
Silicon Valley people are coming, too. Kevin, a tech worker in his 30s who would only give a first name, visited the San Francisco theater for the first time on a June Thursday afternoon to see “Captain America.” He’d previously visited and loved an Alamo Drafthouse in Texas.
“I think it’s the best theater experience ever – have an Old Fashioned, have a hot chocolate chip cookie,” he said.
Keegan said the New Mission draws a diverse crowd from across the city, especially on Terror Tuesdays. The audience often spills from the auditorium to the lobby to talk about horror films. New friendships have formed.
“I am so happy to be a gathering place for different types of people,” Keegan said. “It feels good and connective in a way where this city sometimes bums you out. It’s nice to be able to focus on a positive thing instead of getting bummed out about friends having to move away.”
The New Mission has held on to pieces of the neighborhood’s past in the form of stacks of DVDs in the middle of its lobby. The theater is now home to beloved Lost Weekend Video, which no longer could afford the Valencia Street space it occupied for 19 years.
League and producer Megan Ellison, head of Annapurna Pictures (“Zero Dark Thirty”) and Oracle executive chairman Larry Ellison’s daughter, also went in together to acquire a vast library of hard-to-find films from another local video store institution that closed recently – the inner Sunset’s Le Video.
The New Mission also holds many screenings for local film festivals. “You have to be good neighbors,” said Keegan, who lives a block from the theater. “I am very conscious of being a good neighbor in my life and in my work.”
This is not to say a few people won’t feel a bit left out. Like Pearl Boscacci, 98, and Bill Armstrong, 80, who stood outside the closed gate of the New Mission on a June afternoon, trying to get a peek inside, just before a manager came to open the theater for the day.
Boscacci, a Mission native, asked the manager when the place opens every day, because it’s never open when she and Armstrong walk by while doing their shopping. And show times aren’t in the paper.
Usually 30 minutes before the first show, the theater employee told her, and the theater does not advertise in the paper. Everything’s online.
“I don’t have a computer or Facebook,” Boscacci said. But she does have children in their 70s and memories of seeing Clark Gable pictures at the New Mission in the 1930s and ’40s. Back then, she and her friends could walk home at night without being bothered, and “you didn’t see a scrap of (stray) paper on the sidewalk,” she said.
She didn’t make it into the theater that June day, but she will at some point, she said. She welcomes new businesses.
“I think it is a big improvement,” she said of the neighborhood’s renovation projects. “They say history repeats itself, and years and years ago, this was beautiful.”
Carla Meyer: 916-321-1118, @CarlaMeyerSB
Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater
A dine-in movie house that serves food, beer and cocktails to one’s seat. The theater offers first-run Hollywood and independent films as well as special film events.
Where: 2550 Mission St., San Francisco (between 21st and 22nd streets)
Cost: Movie tickets run $5-$16.25 for 3-D films. Food menu items cost $17 or less, draft beers $10 or less. Cocktails are $12.
Transportation: Parking is extremely limited, but the theater sits a few blocks from the 24th Street and Mission BART station, and it’s also on the 14-Mission bus line.
Information: drafthouse.com/sf, 415-549-5959