In 1969, when Perry Butler opened his namesake bar and restaurant, Perry’s on Union, the street was not the dining and shopping mecca it is today. Butler, a twentysomething product of the Ivy League, left bustling New York City for dreamy Cow Hollow. At the time, Union Street was sleepy and mostly residential, with a few service businesses. Despite the area’s lack of commerce, it retained turn-of-the-century charm with restrained Edwardians and exuberant Victorians. Imaginative entrepreneurs saw Union’s potential and were eager to reinvent it.
Butler was one of them. The New York native missed the neighborhood saloons of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He wanted to translate their spirit of camaraderie to San Francisco. With the audacity of youth, Butler bought a two-story commercial property at 1944 Union Street. He converted what was once a nondescript building into an inviting bar and grill. The new venue had memorabilia-covered walls, hexagonal tiled floors and blue-and-white-checked tablecloths. Butler, a former advertising executive, printed mailers describing Perry’s as a place to “relax, to eat good food and enjoy a drink, to meet people you haven’t seen since last night or maybe haven’t seen before at all, or to just sit and watch the world go by.” Perry’s early neighbors consisted of an eclectic mix of merchants. To the east of the saloon, Angelina Alioto, then the wife of Mayor Joseph Alioto, owned A. Genaro Antiques, specializing in china, silverware and curios. Next, to her, retired ad man Innis Bromfield sold fine art and antiques from his gallery The Pantechnicon. They shared their block with Capricorn Coffees, one of the first specialty coffee roasters in San Francisco. West of Perry’s, Minerva’s Owl Bookshop drew the literary crowd. Nearby, puppeteer Lettie Schubert delighted children young and old at Schubert’s Toy Square. Bohemian San Franciscans lingered at Coffee Cantata.
Union Street became a destination, and people flocked to Perry’s, thanks in part to a litany of charismatic Irish bartenders, starting with the late Michael McCourt, who held court behind the bar. The brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, he shared the same poetic gift for Limerick storytelling. Butler says, “McCourt set the tone and made our bar a legitimate, happening place. With the tone set, it became a highly desirable place to work and attracted many other wonderful personalities and characters over the years.”
One of those personalities was Dubliner Seamus Coyle, who joined McCourt pouring drinks and entertaining the patrons. Their audience included two influential wordsmiths. “From the very first year Perry’s opened, Herb Caen, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, wrote about us extensively until the time of his death (in 1997),” Butler recalls. “Perry’s was also prominently featured in Armistead Maupin’s series of novels, Tales of the City.”
While the barkeeps dispensed classic cocktails and timeless wisdom, an engaging wait staff served traditional American food. Regulars came back for Perry’s burgers, steaks, Cobb salad and French onion soup. The restaurant developed a cult following in the 1970s and early ’80s with local sports figures and politicians frequenting it. Will Clark, Joe Montana, Dianne Feinstein and Willie Brown were just a few of the loyal patrons.
Like Caen’s columns and Maupin’s tales, Perry’s has never gone out of style with San Franciscans. After almost 50 years, the East Coast-style hangout still thrives on Union Street. With satellite locations on the Embarcadero, at the SF Design Center and in Larkspur, Butler anticipates the establishments succeeding through future decades. “I’m thrilled to have three of my five children working with me to carry on the Perry’s legacy,” he says.