San Diego's 10 Best Movie Theaters

  • Image by David O'Keefe

Where we go to get lost.

We’re a gregarious lot and one that can stand being cooped up in front of a television set for only so long.

Compared to what they soak you for to attend the opera or live theater, movies are still your best entertainment value.

What follows are ten auditoriums that still maintain the magic of moviegoing.

1. Reading Cinemas Gaslamp #1

701 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-232-0401

Lush, red-velvet curtains act as a nostalgic reminder of what once was at the #1 house of Reading Cinemas Gaslamp.

Lush, red-velvet curtains act as a nostalgic reminder of what once was at the #1 house of Reading Cinemas Gaslamp.

Bonus Features: A 44-x-18-foot screen, eclectic booking, and flowing velvet curtains.

Number of Seats: 476

Total Number of Screens: 15

Reading Gaslamp

701 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

It opened as a Pacific Theatre in November 1997 and quietly changed hands in 2008. What was once a mainstream multiplex vying for first-run hits with neighboring Horton Plaza became Reading Cinemas’ flagship theater in San Diego. It’s the best of all possible movie houses, turning its 15 screens over to everything from mainstream hits to art, foreign, and even revival bookings.

Instead of the iridescent Ringling Bros.-on-meth design scheme of Horton Plaza, architectural firm Benson & Bohl held true to the Gaslamp Quarter’s Victorian surroundings while bringing a stylish touch of ’20s art deco to the imposing two-story lobby. The interior looks like something art director Cedric Gibbons would have whipped up on an MGM soundstage. The frosted-glass doors give way to a remarkable entrance hall flanked by two stairways that lead to the upstairs theaters. There is also a frequently out-of-service escalator and, if all else fails, an elevator to transport patrons to their heavenly destination.

The #1 house is neither San Diego’s biggest nor does it lodge the most expansive screen. What it does have is something you won’t find anywhere else: lush floor-to-ceiling red-velvet curtains that act as a nostalgic reminder of what once was. The 44-x-18-foot screen is sizable enough and the sound and focus will blow you away. They recently installed a Sony 4K projector in their #7 house and the 3-D presentation is impeccable.

So why are there no lines snaking around the block clamoring for a ticket to watch a movie in San Diego’s premier showcase? Parking. With the exception of the Ken, this is the only local theater that doesn’t offer free parking. In this case, you’re going to have to work a little for your art. You didn’t hear it from me, but Horton Plaza offers three hours of free parking in their spacious lot. Save your ticket and keep an eye on the clock — every 15 minutes over the three-hour limit will set you back $2. And if you attend an evening performance, make sure to stamp your tickets prior to showtime. Take it from one who knows: the machines stop validating at 9:00 p.m., and unstamped tickets pay full price.

The 100-year-old Ken Cinema has the best popcorn in town!

The 100-year-old Ken Cinema has the best popcorn in town!

2. Landmark Theatres Ken Cinema

4061 Adams Avenue, Kensington, 619-819-0236

Bonus Features: Single screen house, quality films, spotless presentation, a knowledgeable staff, and the best popcorn in town!

Number of Seats: 575

Total Number of Screens: 1

Landmark Ken

4061 Adams Avenue, Kensington

Guess what turns 100 this year? Built in 1912, the Ken Cinema underwent a streamline Art Moderne makeover in 1947, and in 1975 the theater became the second house to be acquired by the Landmark chain. In its youth, the Ken was little more than a standard-issue neighborhood theater, not a patch on downtown picture palaces like the California or the Fox. In its ability to outlast its ritzier counterparts, the Ken achieved San Diego movie immortality by being the last of its breed: a single-screen neighborhood art house.

It’s a safe bet that at one point many refrigerator doors in San Diego County were enhanced by a Ken Cinema calendar, alerting film fans of their daily change of double features. That was when the Ken was known as a revival house. The theater has gone through several different personality changes over the years — for a time it appeared to follow a strict “if it’s gay, it plays” policy — finally settling into its current state as our premier venue for first-run art films.

Upon first moving to San Diego and discovering the wonders of the Ken, I would talk it up during my film intros at MoPA. Several highfalutin boardmembers called me out on my endorsement, branding the theater “uncomfortable” and “filthy looking.” How can anything as beautiful as the Ken be considered squalid? These are the same philistines who refused to allow the sale of popcorn at MoPA because the smell offended them.

The theater has since installed new seats, and what was once one of the few remaining theaters in America to project with carbon arcs switched over to xenon bulbs. In an attempt to keep abreast of the times, a Sony 4K projector recently took up permanent residence in the booth. All they need now is 3-D.

UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center, San Diego’s premier showcase for film festivals, is facing demolition.

UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center, San Diego’s premier showcase for film festivals, is facing demolition.

3. UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center #7

7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley, 619-574-8684

Bonus Features: Side-to-side masking and curtains that work!

Number of Seats: 398

Total Number of Screens: 7

Castle Park Middle School

160 Quintard Street, Chula Vista

It opened in 1990 as part of the Mann chain and for a brief time was owned by Madstone. (Was there ever a less conducive name for an entertainment venue than Madstone Hazard Center?) Currently run by locally based UltraStar Cinemas, San Diego’s premier showcase for film festivals (Asian, Jewish, and Latino) is facing demolition.

Two years ago it was announced that UltraStar Hazard Center was slated to meet the wrecking ball. An off-ramp from the 163 is in the works to give drivers easier access to the shopping center. Something had to give.

The good news is the theater has been given a stay of execution, so to speak, and should be around for at least two more years. Six of the seven screens are no great shakes, but house #7 is a marvel. Excitement surges every time the traveling curtains open to reveal the massive 40-x-16-foot curved screen. Their impeccable exhibition of Jackie Chan’s Little Big Soldier for the Asian Film Festival was last year’s single most memorable presentation. The focus was so sharp you could count the grain pattern.

There is not much time left to take advantage of the space — the two years will pass faster than the pop of a flashbulb — so by all means make it one of your destination cinemas.

A 91X radio sticker marks the reviewer’s favorite seat at Landmark Theatres HIllcrest Cinema #1.

A 91X radio sticker marks the reviewer’s favorite seat at Landmark Theatres HIllcrest Cinema #1.

4. Landmark Theatres Hillcrest Cinema #1

3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-819-0236

Bonus Features: Quality films, spotless presentation, a knowledgeable staff, and no more Stella Artois beer commercials before each movie.

Number of Seats: 316

Total Number of Screens: 5

Landmark Hillcrest

3965 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest

Built by Landmark Theatres in 1991, Hillcrest Cinemas stands firm in its commitment to bringing the finest in art, independent, and foreign films to the community. Prior to Reading Cinemas’ arrival in 2008, chances are if it was a quality art film, it played at either Hillcrest, the Ken, the La Jolla Village, or the late, lamented Cove, all Landmark Theatres.

Hillcrest has been forced to change with the times, particularly between January and April, when the smaller art films take a backseat to potentially moneymaking awards winners and contenders. Far be it from me to begrudge their success, as these films, along with compensatory hits such as The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite, ensure that the artier product, prone to underperforming, will follow in their wake.

It is almost unfair to include the #1 Hillcrest on this list because it feels more like home than an afternoon at the movies. Not long after I hit town in 2001, it became clear that the majority of the morning press screenings would be held there. A disc jockey at a nighttime promotional show was handing out bumper stickers and one just happened to find a permanent home plastered to the bottom of my favorite seat to help mark the territory. You never know when that morning cup of coffee is going to hit, and on the rare occasions that a mid-movie visit to the restroom is in order, the sticker makes it easier to find my place in the dark.

Two thousand screenings later, the sticker remains in that treasured spot. I invite you to try it out, just not when I am in attendance.

Handcrafted employee art for upcoming pictures is showcased in the lobby of the Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center.

Handcrafted employee art for upcoming pictures is showcased in the lobby of the Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center.

5. Reading Cinemas Grossmont Center #10

5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa, 619-465-3040

Bonus Features: Side-to-side masking and the largest screen(s) in town!

Number of Seats: 625

Total Number of Screens: 10

Reading Cinemas Grossmont with TITAN XC

5500 Grossmont Center Drive, La Mesa

Size matters! Built as a Pacific Theatre in the early ’90s to replace an existing triplex, the Grossmont Center 10 is home to the largest viewing surfaces in the area. Both theaters #1 and #10 house enormous 60-x-24-foot screens.

As with Reading Cinemas Town Square, an ever-changing touch of homemade craftsmanship in the form of employee art, designed to herald upcoming pictures, can be found situated behind the lobby ticket booth. Sure it’s kitschy, but so is much of what plays on-screen. These minimalist attempts at ballyhoo add an expressive touch that in their own small way hearken back to the Golden Age of moviegoing.

6. Edwards Mira Mesa IMAX

10733 Westview Parkway

This colossal IMAX screen at Edwards Mira Mesa has 625 seats in front of it.

This colossal IMAX screen at Edwards Mira Mesa has 625 seats in front of it.

Number of Seats: 312

Total Number of Screens: 18

Edwards Mira Mesa

10733 Westview Parkway, Mira Mesa

Built in June 2000, of all the venues up for discussion, Edwards Mira Mesa is the most efficiently run megaplex in the county. After seeing many a movie under their roof, I have the pleasure of reporting that it’s the one venue where I’ve yet to make an un-billed mid-movie cameo in the lobby to grouse about presentation issues.

Is it IMAX or LIEmax? The consensus among the cinematic cognoscenti is that in order for a film to be true IMAX, it must be projected in 70mm on a screen that measures at least 52 feet high and 72 feet across. The digital IMAX house at Edwards Mira Mesa is a reasonable facsimile thereof.

There are currently five IMAX houses serving San Diego County: Edwards Mira Mesa, AMC Mission Valley 20, AMC Palm Promenade 24, AMC Westfield Plaza Bonita, and the domed IMAX at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. The latter was the first giant screen house to grace our town and is the real deal when it comes to fitting the proper technical specifications. With this tradition of excellence comes the equally customary selection of non-narrative, wide-gauge science and nature documentaries that tend to resemble high-end versions of the National Geographic Channel. And no matter how many times they try to solve the problem, the seams in a domed IMAX screen remain annoyingly visible during brightly lit scenes.

The closest we come to genuine IMAX is the Edwards Spectrum IMAX Theater in Irvine. Of the four local-area IMAX screens I’ve visited (one day, Plaza Bonita), Mira Mesa is the amazing colossal screen du jour. Management was loath to release specific screen dimensions, but a quick eyeballing gives it a slight edge over its counterparts in Mission Valley or Palm Promenade.

The 40 ft. screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 in Mission Valley the local jewel in AMC’s crown.

The 40 ft. screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 in Mission Valley the local jewel in AMC’s crown.

7. AMC Mission Valley #17

1640 Camino Del Rio North

Bonus Features: Curved screen and side-to-side masking.

Number of Seats: 323

Total Number of Screens: 20

AMC Mission Valley

1640 Camino del Rio North, Mission Valley

AMC’s first stadium-seating theater erected in San Diego, the Mission Valley 20 is one of the chain’s top performers. The place is fairly imposing; no local megaplex has more screens. You might want to think about renting a golf cart to transport you to the back auditoriums.

AMC Mission Valley was my first brush with stadium seating. While vacationing in 1995, the year the theater opened, I stopped by for a showing of the relatively obscure romantic comedy Paperback Romance. It was like stepping onto Noah’s Ark, had the vessel come equipped with high-backed turquoise blue chairs and raked rows. Once seated, you could barely see the tops of other patrons’ heads, and the unobstructed view contributed to a surprisingly pleasurable viewing experience.

It’s a crunch to get in on the weekends, and while some of their smaller cookie-cutter auditoriums are cramped and impersonal, the 40-foot screen and crisp acoustics make Cinema #17 the local jewel in AMC’s crown.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a venue with sharper focus and more comfortable seating than the Museum of Photographic Arts Theater in Balboa Park.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a venue with sharper focus and more comfortable seating than the Museum of Photographic Arts Theater in Balboa Park.

8. The Museum of Photographic Arts Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater

1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

Bonus Features: Twinkle lights and functioning curtains!

Number of Seats: 226

Total Number of Screens: 1

Museum of Photographic Arts

1649 El Prado, Balboa Park

This is an auditorium I can personally vouch for, as I was there before so much as one seat was nailed to the floor. (Sadly, I cannot take credit for the twinkle lights.) As the museum’s inaugural film curator, I had the honor to ensure that MoPA’s booth, built in 2000, was the most technically proficient one in town, stocked with the finest 35mm projection and sound equipment.

The place is not perfect. The center aisle robs the auditorium of its “sweet seats,” and the cherrywood slabs that adorn the walls tend to deaden sound — but it’s unlikely you will find a venue with sharper focus and more comfortable seating than the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Theater.

Why did the MoPA film series fold? After an almost five-year run, they closed my program due to a shrinking budget and, quite frankly, a lack of interest. People don’t want to sit in a dark room watching old movies when it’s warm and sunny outside in Balboa Park.

Currently home to several local festivals (Italian, German, Coming of Age, Human Rights Watch, etc.) and MoPA’s signature POP Thursdays series, the theater doesn’t get nearly the amount of use it should.

The friendliest staff in town is at Reading Cinemas Town Square in Clairemont.

The friendliest staff in town is at Reading Cinemas Town Square in Clairemont.

9. Reading Cinemas Town Square

4665 Clairemont Drive, Clairemont Mesa

Bonus Features: The friendliest staff in town.

Total Number of Screens: 14

Clairemont Town Square

4821 Clairemont Drive, Clairemont

From the looks of it, Reading Cinemas Town Square is nothing more than your typical nondescript suburban house with 14 screens pumping out pretty much the same fare as any other show in town. The difference lies in management. Jennifer Deering, aided and abetted by a staff of 35, helps to make the Town Square the friendliest place in the county to watch a movie.

Deering started with Mann Theatres in the ’70s, at the 2252-seat Fox Theatre, now Copley Symphony Hall. She subsequently wound up managing several venues and was there the time Barbra Streisand visited the Valley Circle Theatre to oversee the presentation of The Main Event. “She didn’t like the color of the walls,” Deering remembers, “and had them repainted to suit her taste.”

Deering made the move to Pacific Theatres in 1996 and took command of the Clairemont Town Square in 2000. She stayed on after Reading Cinemas bought out the competing chain in 2008. When it comes to adding a personal touch to the job of multiplex overlord, Deering is this town’s supreme show person. The lobby art (particularly the jumbo standees) is always precisely assembled and situated. Except for the time a life-size Bart Simpson figure turned up missing, later to be found seated in a stall during a bathroom check.

She is not the type of manager that spends her day hiding in the office, and her knowledge of and passion for film is boundless. Next time you visit, ask to speak with “Ms. D.,” as her adoring staff calls her. Consider it time well spent in a movie theater lobby.

Last year’s $3 million restoration of Coronado’s Vintage Cinemas Village Theatre features illuminated murals and an art deco lobby.

Last year’s $3 million restoration of Coronado’s Vintage Cinemas Village Theatre features illuminated murals and an art deco lobby.

10. Vintage Cinemas Village Theatre #1

820 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Bonus Features: Art deco lobby, illuminated murals in each auditorium, and functioning curtains.

Number of Seats: 215

Total Number of Screens: 3

Vintage Village Theatre

820 Orange Avenue, Coronado

The 25,000 residents of Coronado Island once again have a movie theater to call their own. After 53 years of serving the community, Coronado’s Village Theatre, dilapidated and in sad need of repair, was shuttered in 2000. Last year, Los Angeles–based Vintage Cinemas restored the theater — to the tune of $3 million — beyond its former glory.

Vintage Cinemas refurbished the landmark theater with a jeweler’s eye. Their attention to detail is striking; more thought went into designing the lobby than you’ll find in a dozen new builds. With its shimmering blue curtains and phosphorescent wall art, the 215-seat main auditorium is a compact hint of what theatergoers experienced during cinema’s halcyon years. Though beautifully engineered, the two 48-seat rooms resemble swanky home theaters, the type you’d find in many homes on the island.

The purist in me wishes they had renovated the 600-seat single-screen theater instead of slicing it in three, but with all the movies currently jockeying for screen space, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to book mainstream films in a house with only one auditorium. ■

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What a great feature! I've spent the last two years working on an upcoming cover story called "Bigscreen San Diego," covering the largest of the long-gone local moviehouses we didn't already cover in the previous features on downtown's grindhouse row ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ), San Diego's much-missed drive-in theaters ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) , and local porn theaters (most of them former all-age houses - http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs... ) - reading this story has inspired me to dig in and finish the dang thing. This city has a pretty impressive movie theater history, with a few great houses still screening - thanks for chronicling!

Always nice to see the Ken Cinema get some love. But where do you get the notion it was built in 1912? By all accounts it was built in 1946. Are you conflating it with the late, lamented Guild, which was built in 1913? If you have first-hand research to back this new date for the Ken's birth, do share, por favor.

Here's a friendly challenge for you, Jay: find a photo of that crazy mural that used to adorn the Ken's foyer back in the '70s, the one with Marilyn Monroe and Frank Zappa. I thought the Internet would find it for me in a flash, but no such luck.

Got multiple pics in the archive! May take a bit to dig out 'n' scan, but I'm on the case - we even have construction photos of the Ken being built!

Scott -- looks like you're right about the 1912 date. So... never mind!

It's a diminished list. No Cove, no Unicorn, no Guild, no Cass Street or the one over on Grand or Garnet -- was it called the Fine Arts? -- or the one on Park Blvd. or in Ocean Beach on the main drag. Plus a lot of bigger ones like the Loma and the one west of the U-T in Mission Valley that used to flood in heavy rain.

Gone, gone, those places where I saw "The Big Lebowski" and "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Wizard of Oz," "Ran," "Do the Right Thing," "The Yellow Submarine," "Saturday Night Fever,""Titanic." Now they're converting North County multi-plexes into food-and-drink-barcalounger venues. No thanks.

Pretty much all of those ran midnight movies in their final days, some going to porn (including the Roxy in PB) - the Unicorn was so geared toward "head" movies that they screened trippy films on the CEILING of one room, with blankets and pillows for people to recline on.

monagan -- the theater on Garnet was indeed the Fine Arts, where I first encountered Werner Herzog through "Aguirre" and later saw Kurosawa's "Ran" ten times. Of all the movie house I once worked at, only two are still standing, and only the Ken is an operational theater.

Thanks everybody! Can't wait to read your piece, JAS. It's not often that I inspire people to do anything but turn off their computers.

Mordecai: I did my research. According to the San Diego Historical Society the Ken was built in 1912 and they have the documentation to prove it. I'll be writing a blog about it soon. Watch the skies!

Thanks, Scott. I called the Ken after my initial comment and learned about the info at the SDHS from the manager (hence my second comment). When I worked at the Ken in the '80s it seemed accepted wisdom that the theater had only been in operation since the late '40s, so I look forward to learning more about its "lost years" when you blog about it. Hope there will be pictures.

This means that the Ken actually predates the Hillcrest (later known as the Guild) by an entire year.

Extra kudos for recognizing Jennifer Deering, who knows a thing or two about the cinemah.

Tell me about it. As a former theatre manager myself, I stand in awe of her ability to put on a show.

Firstly, great article Scott and equally great cover art by David O'Keefe!

When I saw the cover, I was hoping my fave was included! I was not disappointed as the Ken made it at # 2! The theater is a throwback! The offerings are great! The popcorn is delicious! The quarterly schedule of films is very helpful! The overall experience of the neighborhood is also great! I enjoy the indie and foreign films without sheep-fed, corporate, top heavy CGI to boost sub-par stories! I also don't mind the subtitles. The lack of inane chatter and cellphone antics says something about the attention span of the audience! The neighborhhood also includes Ken Video next door (a San Diego jewel!), the Kensington Library, Kensington Cafe (mochas and happy hour!) and Ponces! The Ken is well worth my fifteen mile drive from the coast!

I am sorry to hear about the pending demolition of the screens at Hazard Center. I attended the San Diego Latino and Asian Film Festivals at Hazard Center on numerous occasions over the years. San Diego has an impressive variety of film festivals! By the way, where will these festivals be held in the future?

I do miss The Cove that was on Girard in La Jolla. The Cove used to show a lot of French films. Fortunately, The Ken includes many French films in their selections.

I do like the offerings of the Reading Gaslamp. They do a good job including non-blockbusters such as quality documentaries. Boo to the non-freebie parking dealio. But there are options!

I also miss the offerings at MoPA. I especially remember the student screenings. Maybe when the economy finally rebounds MoPa could give their film project another go? The parking scene at Balboa Park has a bad rep especially at night but I have always found parking. Generally speaking, I think San Diegans could show more love for the museums in Balboa Park. Not every city has such a selection of quality museums in one place. Maybe we take our museums for granted?

The Landmark Hillcrest has had very good films over the years especially, the documentaries but the parking can be vicious. The last time I was there, I almost burned out my engine while trying to exit their parking garage via the incline ramp.

I will be visiting the theater in Coronado. Such restorative efforts deserve my support!

Great story! It will make it to the reference pile on the coffee(?) table!

IMHO the Ken would be #1 IF they had functional air-conditioning.

As far as the "Lie-MAX" controversy you hit the nail on the head. With no true IMAX screens dedicated to first run big studio films it is worth the drive to Irvine to see a reasonable facsimile. The stadium seating and the HUGE screen (it seems to be almost four stories tall) combine to create an unforgettable experience.

Nice list! I've only visited a few of these locations, I'm really looking forward to visiting the Ken cinema at some piont, as with the La Paloma in Encinitas. I've recently made it my mission to visit as many different theaters as I can, for no other reason than just to say, "Hey, I saw __ there!"

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