A man who once sold hot dogs, candy and sodas from his dad’s carts on Philadelphia street corners, Perry Bennett grew up in poverty, lived out of his car at one point to save money, and opened his own restaurant in San Francisco’s famed Fillmore District.
But after seeing the writing on the wall, with a rapidly changing landscape and increasingly expensive rents and home prices, he left the Bay Area and headed to Pasadena.
To separate Perry’s story from the experience of Perry’s Joint would be leaving out the vital ingredient. When you step into Perry’s, it is like you just walked into the small town diner that you usually only see on TV. The walls are lined with covers of some of the most influential jazz albums of all time (a nod to the Fillmore), an ice cream display and a milkshake blender sits next to candy bars, a fridge full of sodas is nearby, and a handwritten chalk menu on the wall lists the sandwiches, hot dogs and breakfast classics being served.
Perry is usually behind the counter talking to guests about everything from how school is going to their favorite order, and he knows everyone who comes in. Arrive any time after 2:30 p.m. and there are bound to be some students there from nearby John Muir High School, backpacks open with notebooks and papers spread over tables, something more commonly seen at a Starbucks. Only here, Perry actually knows the students. He calls out their names as they walk in, like something from an episode of “Cheers.” He knows what colleges they are applying to and what they are studying.
It’s not only the proximity to Muir High that makes Perry’s Joint the place to be after school and at lunch; it’s how much he cares about the community, further evidenced by his creation of a fund for students. One day each August before school starts, he brings the neighborhood together by using the day’s profit to support two or three students he hand selects.
But it is not just Muir students who have found a home at Perry’s Joint. School administrators and staff visit on their lunch breaks, as do staff members of a local medical facility located near the popular restaurant.
The menu is built around the same items Perry recalls loving as a kid: classic sandwiches and hot dogs, only with a few slight modifications.
The Big City ($5.50), a classic chili and cheese hot dog, is nostalgia in a bun for less than $6. For East Coast traditionalists there is the New York Dog ($5), with mustard, onion and sauerkraut, and The Chicago ($5), also with mustard but dressed with tomato, wedges, red onions, celery and a sliced pickle. Both are better than any ballpark hotdog, and at about half the cost.
Perry’s has two styles of sandwiches — straight-ahead classic deli sandwiches and fusions, which take the basics up a notch with a few additions. Each sandwich is given some jazz-related wordplay like The Egg From Ipanema ($5.50 half/ $8 whole), an egg salad sandwich served on white, wheat, rye, sourdough, or squaw bread with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, mayonnaise and mustard.
The Egg from Ipanema is one of the favorites, along with the Chicken Mingus ($5.50 half/ $8.25 whole), Perry’s take on a basic chicken salad sandwich, a childhood favorite of mine. Perry’s version uses lettuce, tomato, sliced green apples, mayonnaise and mustard. I recommend paying the extra 50 cents to get it on a croissant. The Mingus is a must-try, but get there early so you do not miss out on the magic that apple slices and chicken combine to create. Perry makes a fresh batch each morning, but when it’s gone, it’s gone.
The Veggie Combo ($5.50 half, $7.75 full) is a vegetarian-friendly option that comes with lettuce, cucumber, red onions, avocado and cheese, on your choice of bread, of course. On colder days, or if you are looking for a piled, classic, hot deli sandwich, the Perry Pounder ($9) is made with hot shaved roast beef, onion, American cheese, pickles, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup — the epitome of good sandwich.
In short, Perry’s menu is all the deli classics stacked tall, sliced by hand that same morning by the same guy who makes the sandwich. Deli sandwiches can be made the same way they were 50 years ago, and taste just as good, proving once again that some things do not need to change to remain great. Bennett gets that.
For Bennett, the charismatic owner and namesake of Perry’s Joint, growing up meant capitalizing on opportunities. “I needed for the kids in the area to see something else,” he explained. And that’s why he takes the time to genuinely connect with each person who walks through the door.
There is a wholesomeness at Perry’s Joint, a nostalgia that ruminates from the menu and friendly atmosphere that Bennet exudes — all just steps away from the world of obnoxious, unnecessary plating and pretentiousness. If you want a great deli sandwich, good conversation and an opportunity to listen to some great Jazz, Perry’s Joint is the place.
I’ll be stopping in again for a breakfast bagel (offered with cream cheese, avocado, or extras) and a coffee. Perry’s also boasts a full espresso bar.
In an era of food trends, hour-long lines and overpriced basics, Perry’s Joint offers a refuge, a personal experience with heart, and a soundtrack of the heavyweights of the jazz era. You know when you are eating at Perry’s Joint that you are contributing to something bigger, and someone who cares about his community.