The San Francisco Bay Area may lack many things — rain, summer, affordable housing — but at least you can’t quibble with our place in cinema history. From the classics like Vertigo, Bullitt and The Birds to more recent on-screen roles in movies like Zodiac, Godzilla and, uh, San Andreas, it’s entirely possible to while away a very pleasant weekend sightseeing this region’s many movie filming locations. And if you’re a movie fan who loves to eat: what could be better than to tour the Bay Area restaurants you’ve seen on screen?
Disclaimer: a staggering proportion of interior scenes in Bay Area-set movies aren’t filmed here at all, but rather on a soundstage somewhere in Los Angeles. It may be standard movie practice, but it does mean that you can’t actually have coffee in a place like the seeming ‘classic San Francisco diner’ where Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo come close to cracking the case in David Fincher’s Zodiac (above.) But take heart, and come with me on a tour of the Bay’s food spots that really have been seen onscreen — from the ones you can still visit to some long-shuttered, dearly-departed relics.
Still Playing: Four Bay Area Film Locations You Can Still Eat In
Featured in: Mrs Doubtfire (1993)
This pilgrimage may feel a little bittersweet with the passing of Mrs. Doubtfire’s iconic star Robin Williams last year, but it’s worth the trip to Danville to relive the movie’s climactic set piece — Williams juggling two simultaneous dinner dates while alternately dressed as elderly alter-ego Mrs. Doubtfire. In real life alas, this upscale East Bay spot’s menu does not feature the infamous “hot jambalaya” that causes Williams to administer a life-saving Heimlich Maneuver to love rival Pierce Brosnan. (Although the Pleasanton Weekly reports that despite forcing the restaurant to close for a whole month during filming back in 1993, the Doubtfire connection consequently doubled Bridges’ business, so it’s fair to guess that they’re used to fans of 90s comedy still dropping in and asking for this particular menu item.)
Tip: to complete your Mrs Doubtfire pilgrimage, head north-west to Berkeley and grab a day-pass to the Claremont Spa and Hotel, where the movie’s pool scenes were filmed. If you’re a guest at the hotel or a Club Member, you too can get tipsy at their poolside bar and subject handsome Irishmen to a “run-by fruiting.”
Featured in: Basic Instinct (1992)
Alright, so nobody in 2015 is exactly clamoring for the Basic Instinct San Francisco Bus Tour, and Bay Area locals are far more likely to snidely remind you of the geographical ludicrousness of this movie’s dramatic car chase north across the Golden Gate Bridge that suddenly cuts to Hwy 1… south of San Francisco. But a visit to SF’s North Beach neighborhood is still made even more fun with a visit to the century-old Tosca Cafe, which has a sort-of-starring role as the SFPD watering hole where detective Michael Douglas, rattled by that notorious Sharon Stone interrogation, dramatically abandons his sobriety.
These days Tosca’s almost certainly prefers to be known for its 2013 reinvention as a restaurant than for its brief appearance in a dubious classic of nineties erotica. But it’s still fun to spot its stenciled door and distinctive red booths onscreen, and let’s face it: given Tosca’s popularity, its growing number of awards and its invitation-only back room’s reputation as the place to spot visiting celebrities, Netflix might be the only way you’ll see the inside of this North Beach institution for a while.
The Tides Restaurant, Bodega Bay
Featured in: The Birds (1960)
Ever noticed that small-town movie settings — particularly ones subjected to strange things — are often given fictionalized, generic names? Not Bodega Bay, the North Bay setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds which is why visiting this windswept spot off Hwy 1 is such a fun experience for movie buffs. The town’s Tides Wharf Restaurant provided the backdrop for multiple moments, although the actual cafe scenes were filmed (you guessed it) hundreds of miles away on the Universal Studios lot.
Although the Tides complex has been remodeled several times since those days, it’s still a real kick for Hitchcock fans to experience its windswept, slightly dilapidated charms, especially since the buildings and parking lot were also used for the boat dock scenes and gas station scenes. (Bodega Bay was thankfully spared the famous “gas station explosion” in real life, which took place at the studio.)
Featured in: Blue Jasmine (2013)
According to his cinematographer, Woody Allen “always wanted to avoid the postcard sights” while filming his San Francisco-set Blue Jasmine. Chinatown scenes aside, this commitment to showing the “real” San Francisco results in a cameo for Mission Bay spot The Ramp: the waterfront setting for an excruciating first meeting between a Martini-oiled Cate Blanchett and onscreen sister Sally Hawkins, her boyfriend and his dimwit pal.
You’re meant to think Jasmine somewhat pompous when she proclaims the location “reminds me of the Mediterranean” but The Ramp really does boast legimately beautiful views of the bay, and you’re so close to the water on its foliage-filled deck that it’s easy to forget you’re within spitting distance of the freeway.
That’s a Wrap: The Bay Area Foodie Film Locations That Are Long Gone
Ernie’s, San Francisco
Featured in: Vertigo (1958)
With its deep-red silk wallpaper and chandeliered opulence, Ernie’s just looks like the cinematic ideal of a classic restaurant on-screen in Vertigo. By all accounts this SF institution, which opened on Montgomery Street at the turn of the 20th century and finally closed in 1995, was quite the hot spot in its heyday but here’s the thing: the restaurant interior James Stewart and Kim Novak are dining in onscreen is actually a painstaking recreation of Ernie’s.
Hitchcock wanted to have this authentic San Francisco location featured in his movie but when he discovered its size wouldn’t accommodate the panoramic shots he wanted, he just built a fake Ernie’s on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. According to local food writer T.J. Jacobberger’s fantastic account, Hitchcock’s dedication to authenticity also extended to flying Ernie’s proprietors Roland and Victor Gotti to L.A. to play the maitre d’ and bartender onscreen.
Featured in Bullitt (1968)
Don’t you just want to hang out in Bullitt’s impossibly Mad Men-esque jazz cafe Coffee Cantata, where Steve McQueen drinks with Jacqueline Bisset? Well tough, because you can’t. This place in SF’s Cow Hollow neighborhood really was called Coffee Cantata, but it’s long-gone, and in its place lies culinary hotspot Betelnut. There is actually still a spot called Cantata Coffee on Haight Street, but it’s no relation.
While you’re watching this movie, look also for dearly departed North Beach cafe Enrico’s on Broadway, where Bullitt meets an informant: it’s now the site of the restaurant Naked Lunch.
Featured in: American Graffiti (1973)
Not even burger-happy film fans back in the 70s got to pay pilgrimage to this one. George Lucas used Mel’s Drive-In on South Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco as a location for his Modesto-set coming-of-age tale American Graffiti just prior to its scheduled demolition, and by the time it was released, this particular drive-in was reduced to rubble.
Happily, if you really want to recreate scenes from the movie you can head to one of the many other Mel’s Drive-in incarnations in San Francisco. They’re novelty pastiches now of course, but of all of them, the Geary Street location probably most resembles the Mel’s onscreen.
Burger Island (a.k.a “Acorn Cafe”)
Featured in: Sudden Impact (1983)
“Go ahead… make my day” has become so iconic a pop culture reference that it’s easy to forget which scene this line is actually spoken in (or indeed, in what Dirty Harry movie.) But of course, it’s the climax to the cafe robbery in Sudden Impact, set in what was called the ‘Acorn Cafe’ in the movie, but actually filmed in an unremarkable corner spot called Burger Island in SOMA.
It’s now a McDonald’s, so technically you can still go there and order a coffee like Harry… but that’s almost certainly where your homage should end.
What Bay Area foodie film locations have I missed? Let me know in the comments!
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post stated that fans of The Birds could attend a signing at the Tides Inn in August by star Tippi Hedren. This signing actually took place in 2014, and the post has been updated to reflect that.