I love popcorn. I pop it fresh at home, and usually can't resist a big bag of it when I go to the movies. As someone who grew up in San Diego County, I've always been impressed with the popcorn I eat at theaters in the Bay Area (and the theaters themselves). In San Diego, pretty much all movie houses are large cineplexes owned by media chains. So in addition to having to sit through endless entertainment trivia questions and facts while we wait for the movie to start, not to mention the interminable canned pop music blaring through the Dolby speakers, the only popcorn available is often stale (because it's pre-popped) and comes with a neon orange "butter" flavored topping. And, to add insult to injury, most large tubs top $7.50 these days. It's enough to make this popcorn-loving girl eat M&Ms instead.
So after 15 years of living in both San Francisco and the East Bay, I'm still thankful each time I walk into my local Grand Lake Theater, with its beautiful decorative ceilings and theme rooms, ample seating, Friday and Saturday Mighty Wurlitzer organ music before the evening shows, and marquee sporting left-leaning political views (or rather, rants). It's pretty much the antithesis of anything you'd find in my home town and I love it. When I lived in San Francisco, I enjoyed going to the Red Vic, the Lumiere, the Castro, the Clay and a variety of other movie houses. Some were renovated, others a little run down, but none blared the latest country music hit from the speakers or had ads before the show started. Even better, all of the small movie houses I liked had great popcorn.
So while watching How to Train Your Dragon with my daughters recently at the Grand Lake Theater, I started to wonder how many local movie houses really pop their corn on site, and also which offer real butter. In an attempt to classify this information, I emailed or called the main movie theaters in San Francisco, Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. And, just for good measure, I also asked everyone how much they charged for a large tub or bag. I was impressed to find that all but one theater that responded popped their popcorn on site (and the one that didn't sells unique Asian-flavored popcorn). Interestingly, even large chains that truck their popcorn in for other non-Bay Area locations pop it fresh in their San Francisco, Emeryville and Berkeley theaters. I was also excited to find that all but one of the independents offer real butter as a topping. What surprised me, however, was how much cheaper the popcorn at independent movie houses was in comparison to the chain theaters (often 2/3 the price and in one case almost half the cost), especially considering that the larger chains often use cheaper soy bean or coconut oil "butter" flavored toppings instead of real butter. The admission price is also usually less expensive at an independent house, so you may want to splurge on some Red Vines as well.