In a state teeming with steakhouses, it takes a special recipe to stand out from the pack. Logic might tell you that said recipe involves opening in a big city with prime visibility and heavy foot traffic, and surely not in a tiny town of just 500 people. But Perini Ranch Steakhouse defies that logic, because it’s still standing 40 years later in Buffalo Gap, the same West Texas town where it got its start back in 1983.
Before the restaurant, there was a chuck wagon. Tom Perini, whose family has owned the eponymous ranch in Buffalo Gap since 1952, would pull up to big events and cook for cowboys and ranchers. People liked his food, and a friend convinced him to open a place of his own, so in 1983 Perini Ranch Steakhouse debuted in a wooden barn on the family’s 640-acre property.
“I really didn’t understand restaurants,” Tom Perini tells InsideHook. “In those early days, I did everything wrong. We were on a little farm-to-market road, and you couldn’t see us from the highway. Everything was word of mouth.”
The early days were lean. The barn could seat up to 50 people, but that first year rarely saw more than 10 at a time. Tom worried about making payroll and realized he’d better learn the ropes fast. The food was good and the atmosphere authentic, so eventually word spread, first to locals and then to others in nearby Abilene and across the state.
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Today, the expanded restaurant seats 200 people across the dining room and patio, and it draws 100,000 visitors annually. There’s an offshoot cafe and country market, both located less than a mile down the road, plus two guest houses where visitors can stay overnight. The catering business is still going strong, taking Tom and his wife Lisa across the country to weddings, parties and even the White House. They’ve published four books. It’s been a wild ride punctuated by a series of key opportunities and recognition for the restaurant’s self-described “real Texas food.”
That Texas food includes Angus beef steaks that are seasoned and then grilled over live mesquite fire. Options include classic cuts, from filets to well-marbled ribeyes and a prime rib. It would be a shame to come here and not get a steak, but the menu also includes entrees like grilled Cajun catfish, pork ribs and burgers, plus salads and sides like potatoes, green chile hominy and the fan-favorite Zucchini Perini, which sees sliced zucchini rounds baked in an Italian meat sauce and topped with grated Parmesan.
Once Texas publications sniffed out what was happening at Perini Ranch, visitors would show up with magazines in hand, ready to experience cowboy cooking. “The first time that happened, I panicked,” says Tom.
In 1995, The New York Times selected the restaurant’s Mesquite Smoked Peppered Beef Tenderloin as their mail-order gift of the year. There was only one problem: Perini Ranch didn’t have a mail-order business.
That same year, the James Beard Foundation invited Tom to cook at the Beard House in New York. So to offset the travel costs for him and his staff, Tom explains that he sent tenderloins to several New York publications, including The New York Times, hoping to drum up interest in the restaurant. When the story came out, he decided to lean into the exposure and developed a mail-order company. Back then, it was paper order forms, not the convenient online ordering like today, but it turned into a big part of the business that’s still going strong. “It’s been important for our brand because it’s so far reaching,” says Lisa Perini. “We sell them to people in every state.”
National and international press brought Perini Ranch’s unique story to people all over the world. And soon, those people came in person. The steakhouse received an influx of visitors from Japan after it was featured in a Japanese documentary, and groups have traveled from as far afield as Sweden, France, England and India, all looking for that true Texas experience.
Lisa credits the restaurant’s wide appeal to its authenticity. “We didn’t try to create a destination, it just is one,” she says. “You have to make a big effort to get here, and you’re eating dinner on a working ranch. It feels natural and comfortable. It’s the Texas that people expect.”
Plenty has changed at Perini Ranch since the steakhouse debuted, but the restaurant still occupies that same wooden structure on that same farm-to-market road where it first opened 40 years ago. To celebrate four decades in business, the Perinis are kicking off an anniversary celebration this month that will last through the fall. First up is the launch of their new podcast, Meet Me At The Wagon. It highlights the tradition and romance of rural Texas and takes listeners through the timeline of how Perini Ranch Steakhouse became what it is today. Tom and Lisa will be joined by a roster of celebrity guests, including Reba McEntire, actor Rex Linn and chef Dean Fearing.
The Perinis also have a new book that contains stories and photography from Tom’s private collection and provides a rare glimpse behind the scenes of Perini Ranch. This fall, they will continue the celebration with an outdoor art exhibit curated by Michael Grauer of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. It will be open to the public from September 28 to October 29 and feature works that showcase the history of Buffalo Gap, chuckwagon cooking and the steakhouse.
Tom says he never could have imagined all this when he opened the restaurant 40 years ago, joking that he still barely understands what a podcast is. But throughout it all, he’s kept an open mind and adapted as the business evolved.
His advice? “When an opportunity presents itself, just try to make it work.”
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