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.
Following is a list of my findings. Please note that not every theater responded, so if your favorite isn't on the list, blame the person who answers their email. I tried calling some locations that didn't email me back, but as most only have phone numbers that list movie show times, I couldn't actually speak to anyone. Also, some theaters noted that they offer free refills on their large tub of popcorn, while others simply didn't provide this information.
As you'll see, the state of movie popcorn is pretty good where we live. The popcorn seems to always be popped on site, which makes it fresher. The butter situation, although pretty good, is a bit rockier, with some theaters offering real butter and others that neon orange stuff. But let's just forget about fresh popcorn and butter for a second. Regardless of the quality of these concessions, we're lucky to have so many small movie houses still in existence. Sadly, the day of the independent movie theater is gone in many other parts of the country, but here we can enjoy retrospectives at the Red Vic, walking to the Lumiere or the Presidio on windy nights, seeing a film festival at the Castro, or taking our kids to see the latest 3D movie at The Grand Lake. We're fortunate to have so many old movie houses to choose from, whether you eat popcorn or not.
AMC Loews Metreon 16 -- Orville Redenbacher popped on site. Instead of butter, they offer a popcorn topping that is butter flavored and made from soy bean oil. The person who answered the phone said that a large tub costs $6.75, but their sister theater (Bay Street in Emeryville) says the price should be equivalent to their price (which is $7.50).
Balboa Theater -- Freshly popped with real butter. A large tub costs $5 (including tax) and comes with a free refill. They also offer Kernel Seasons Toppings.
Castro Theater -- The only theater to say they popped organic popcorn. It's popped fresh at the theater and they offer real butter as a topping. A large tub costs $5.75.
Century Theaters (including Century Center 9 and CinéArts @ Empire) -- Fresh Orville Redenbacher popped with canola oil. They offer real butter for a topping and charge between $6.50 and $6.75 for a large size (depending on the location). Free refills are also offered.
Landmark Theaters (including The Bridge, Clay, Lumiere, Opera Plaza and Embarcadero Center Cinema) -- Each Landmark Theater pops their own popcorn on site and offers real butter as a topping. A large tub costs $7.50.
Red Vic -- Fresh popped corn with real butter. A large tub costs $5.
Roxie Theater -- They make fresh popcorn every night, popping it in peanut oil instead of the more commonly used canola oil. They also offer real butter as a topping and charge $4.50 for a large tub, the least expensive tub of popcorn in the survey.
Stonestown Twin 2 -- Popcorn popped on site. Instead of butter, they offer a butter-flavored topping made from coconut oil. At $8.00 for a large popcorn, this is the most expensive popcorn on my list of San Francisco theaters, but you can get a refill.
Vogue Theater -- Fresh popcorn popped on site. They do not offer real butter for a topping. A large bag costs $5.50 and free refills (same visit only).
Viz Cinema -- Viz offers a different popcorn experience than most theaters. They have wasabi, curry, and shichimi (Japanese hot pepper) flavored popcorn that is purchased from an outside baker (no butter or butter flavoring). They sell it in 4 oz bags for $4.00 each.
Alameda Theater -- Popcorn popped fresh before each show on site. They also offer real butter as a topping. A large tub is $6.00
AMC Bay Street -- Orville Redenbacher popped on site. No real butter. Instead they offer a butter-flavored topping made from soy bean oil. A large tub costs $7.50.
Elmwood Rialto -- Popcorn popped on site with real butter as a topping. A large costs $5.75.
The Grand Lake Theater -- Popcorn popped fresh on site with real butter as a topping. A large tub costs $5.00.
Jack London Stadium 9, Emery Bay Stadium 10, and Berkeley 7 Theaters -- Popcorn popped on site. Instead of butter, they offer a butter-flavored topping made from coconut oil. Like Stonestown, which is also owned by the same company, they charge a whopping $8.00 for a large popcorn, but you can get a refill.
Landmark Theaters (including Piedmont Theater, Albany Twin, California Theatre, and Shattuck Cinemas) -- -- Each Landmark Theater pops their own popcorn on site and offers real butter as a topping. A large tub costs $7.50.