Chef Gayle Pirie’s Thoughtful Artsy Guide To San Francisco

Gayle Pirie
Gayle Pirie

Photo Credit: Melissa Barnes

Alice Waters, Nancy Oakes, Dominique Crenn, Emily Luchetti—when it comes to female chefs who have impacted the Bay Area’s culinary industry, there is a small handful of very well known names. One that we don’t hear too often, but who is equally important is Gayle Pirie.

For the past 19 years, Pirie and her partner John Clark, have held court in the Mission District at Foreign Cinema. The beloved quintessentially Cal-Mediterranean restaurant is known for its elegant preparations of everything from grilled local calamari (with chermoula, chili oil, aioli, breadcrumbs, and cilantro) to heritage pork chops (with Umbrian farro, summer peppers, grilled lemon, Kenya butter, and tabil) to pasta (with summer squash, lobster mushrooms, fresh ricotta, cherry tomatoes, basil, and parmesan).

Earlier this year, Pirie and Clark released their first cookbook, The Foreign Cinema Cookbook: Recipes and Stories Under the Stars, where they share stories about their experience as a couple who run a restaurant together. Pirie’s writing style is captivating and engaging, so much so that we wanted to hear more from her. Precisely where she hangs out in the Bay. Here, in her own words, is Pirie’s guide to the good life in SF.

The courtyard at Foreign Cinema
The courtyard at Foreign Cinema

Photo Credit: Charlie Villyard Photography

Where were you born: I was born and raised in San Francisco, the ultimate hometown.

How long in San Francisco: I’ve been in San Francisco my entire lifetime, both working and attending school, but I moved to Berkeley in 1991 to take over a decrepit, light-infused, 1904 farmhouse that my partner, John Clark, and I have rebuilt many, many times. I reside thirteen miles from San Francisco today, with my family, two cats, and hamster.

Neighborhood: Cow Hollow and the Western Addition were my neighborhoods growing up. As a student and a bohemian type, the Mission is where I first showed my oil paintings, bought used books, and spent days dreaming of the future and being an artist.

Occupation: Co-executive chef/co-owner of Foreign Cinema is the traditional name of my role, but John and I both secretly call ourselves artistic directors of a huge daily production because there is so much to manage and maintain.

The Hayes Street Grill
The Hayes Street Grill

Photo Credit: Hayes Street Grill

Favorite restaurant: The Hayes Street Grill for its California sensibility, longstanding quality, vision and purity of flavors, as well as the aesthetics and unchanged staff, which make it the ultimate comfort spot.

Best sushi: Kamado Sushi in Berkeley

Best Italian: A Mano in Hayes Valley is very impressive and delicious for handmade pasta and the full bar. Super staff.

Best dessert: Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley has an interior and aesthetic from the past that I find irresistible and charming. It feels like a community inside, and the staff is a pleasure. The concoctions make everyone so happy. We need this joyful nostalgia today.

Best place for a romantic date: Bouli Bar at The Ferry Plaza

A scramble at Foreign Cinema's weekend brunch
A scramble at Foreign Cinema’s weekend brunch

Photo Credit: Charlie Villyard Photography

Best Sunday brunch: Foreign Cinema, of course!

Best steakhouse: Alfred’s Steak House is a classic, San Francisco experience that has since been updated for the modern diner by Daniel Patterson.

Best pizza:  Another beloved Mission neighbor, Delfina’s pizza is unbeatable.

Best lunch: Hog Island Oyster Company for the best-shucked oysters on the half shell and their specialty hot oysters with several toppings, too!

Zuni Cafe
Zuni Cafe

Photo Credit: Zuni Cafe

Best place for a power business meeting: My old stomping ground, Zuni. Between the classic San Francisco setting and the cozy sensibility, it’s the best place to enjoy made-to-order Caesar salad and oysters on the half shell.

If you have out of town guests, which hotel would you recommend? I prefer eco-conscious hotels, so for me, it would come down to which is the most environmentally-friendly. For a one-of-a-kind, California experience, I recommend staying at Single Thread in Healdsburg. At once simple, pure, and elegant, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a hotel in my life.

Favorite shopping venue/boutique: I am a huge bookstore fan, and two of my local go-tos are Green Apple Books and William Stout Books on Architecture and Art in the historic Barbary Coast.

Best Gym/Athletic Facility: 24-Hour Fitness in Berkeley

Burke Williams spa
Burke Williams spa

Photo Credit: Burke Williams

Best Spa: Burke Williams

Favorite Charity Event: My own each year: we feel passionate about raising money for causes each September, events and causes near and dear to our hearts from our neighborhood schools, edible garden programs, Mission Local, The Women’s Building, Children’s musical enrichment in public schools, and The Human Rights Campaign.

Favorite cultural institution: Our neighbor, Mission Cultural Center.

Best museum/exhibit: Modernism Inc.’s new gallery location in Lower Nob Hill/Polk Gulch, curated and owned by Martin Muller is a treasure chest of art culture and literature.

Favorite historic/legendary place to see or explore: SF neighborhoods at night, where the nocturnal forces meet fog, isolation, shadows, and quietude and where the iconic stucco geometric architecture takes center stage.

A pizza at Tommaso's
A pizza at Tommaso’s

Photo Credit: Tommaso’s

All-around favorite spot in San Francisco: Tommaso’s in North Beach is a comforting spot for me—it’s a legacy SF business with one of the first wood ovens built for expressly pizza that pre-dates the trend. Its inherent spirit, murals, ownership, and the prime location across the street from the iconic City Lights Bookstore make for the ultimate SF experience.

Describe your city in three words: San Francisco is at once irresistible, maddening, and addictive; the city is capable of luring all humans from around the globe, for its sheer magnificence in spirit, food, beauty, and ideas. Maddening because of its only seven miles by seven miles.

Best aspect of San Francisco: As a painter, San Francisco still moves me as an artist because it is a city full of mystery and stunning visual glory, a city of shadows, light, fog, sheer sweeping beauty, and mood swings! Like a toddler, the City delights and seduces on one end—filled with hope, beauty, inclusion, and diversity, and then frustrates on the other side—lack of housing, rising costs, and the city’s endless red tape and the departure of those who can no longer sustain their bohemian lives here. But I feel hopeful the tides will turn, and the lifestyle of hard work will pay dividends to those who manage to dream, think, and manifest change. The boom/bust theme of SF is alive today as it was in 1849 and all the cycles in between. It keeps one constantly on their toes.