by Kristin Smith / photography by Hemali Acharya
To imagine Perry Butler’s early career, look no further than Mad Men, the AMC series about New York City’s advertising world in the 1960s. Butler, a recent graduate from Dartmouth College, worked for one of those high-powered firms; as did his father. And while he loved the fast pace and creativity of the job, in the back of his head was a looming dream: to move to San Francisco.
Butler had fallen in love with the City on a trip during college. Like so many East Coasters, he was entranced with San Francisco’s landscape, its gorgeous coastline, and the gentle climate. “I knew right away that San Francisco was a very special place,” he says. “California just captured my imagination.” So Butler left the familiarity of New York, his home for most of his life, and ventured west.
But when Butler arrived, he found that the Golden Gate’s advertising world lacked the excitement of the Big Apple’s. “New York was the pulse of the business,” he says. “I wanted to live in San Francisco, but I felt uninspired by my job here.” So, Butler considered other options, and decided to pursue another dream: opening a restaurant.
Butler’s fascination with food began early. He can remember watching his father grill steaks in their backyard in Westchester County, just outside of New York City. But it was in Manhattan, at warm, wood-paneled Upper East Side saloons like Martell’s, where his dream of owning a restaurant came into being. Butler loved the home-like feel of those places—the good American food, the comfortable bars, the thoughtfully chosen memorabilia lining the walls. “That style of restaurant was successful in New York, but nothing like it existed here,” says Butler.
To most people, the idea of starting a restaurant in a new city when you’re only 26 years old might seem like a crazy idea. Maybe the New York saloons wouldn’t translate here, people told him. After all, even tried and true San Francisco-style restaurants were failing. But Butler says he had the “courage of his convictions,” adding that “sometimes being too naïve to be terrified is a great thing.” With some borrowed money, his youthful enthusiasm, and one giant dream, Butler and his wife at the time, opened Perry’s. “We just went for it. We took a shot,” he says.
Perry’s opened in 1969 to huge success, thanks in part to a rave review by the San Francisco Chronicle. “The bar was crazy. It was really a scene,” says Butler of the restaurant’s early years. The New York saloon style had translated to San Francisco. Just as Butler and his co-workers had flooded Martell’s for happy hour, San Francisco workers poured into the wood-paneled joint on Union Street. And they continue to. Last year, Perry’s celebrated its 40th anniversary. Today, Perry Butler is the owner of four different Perry’s restaurants, scattered across the city and including one at San Francisco Airport.
While his industry success is certainly something to be proud of, what the 65-year-old restaurateur says he’s most excited about now is that his kids are working with him. Today, four of his five kids work in the Perry’s business, managing the restaurants and overseeing the operations, and following their father’s business model of “If you have good people, you can do anything.”
Just as a young Perry stood by his father as he grilled steaks in the backyard, Perry’s own kids are standing beside him at the restaurants, and reinforcing his dream of creating restaurants with the feel of home. Butler says, “I have the most wonderful kids. We’re a really close family. If I sound like a proud Dad, it’s because I am.”