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Redemption Is Served

Gwen Butler got her 15 minutes after a diner gave her a $3 million tip to start her own restaurant. But the money is gone, and her restaurant never opened. Now she's back.

Gwen Butler, 6 foot 5 in stilettos and a crown of copper curls, is a conversational fast break. During our lunch, she gabs along over an uneaten plate of fish and chips, serving up dribbles of insecurity and slam dunks of crashed opportunity. Butler is the bartender who got the $3 million tip and blew it all.

This week, she tries again, when Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks is scheduled to open at the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square. Butler, the general manager, credits Garrett Harker, a former co-worker and one of Eastern Standard's owners, with bringing her back from ruin. As the opening of the 150-seat, not-too-pricey bistro looms, Butler admits she's scared. "There's a lot riding on this," she says. "And I'm trying not to drive [Harker] nuts, but I feel like I always drive him nuts. But then, I also know I do a good job, so -"

For his part, Harker, initially wary of Butler, was won over by her ability to work a room. "Gwen is a force of nature when it comes to hospitality," he says.

In our unfiltered conversation, Butler, 34, blithely races through her back story, tossing out name candy. Legendary record producer Lou Adler gave the UCLA dropout a bartending break at Whisky A Go-Go, the famed West Hollywood club, in 1990. Occasionally, Butler poured drinks at Adler's private club, On the Rox, where Heidi Fleiss conducted her prostitution ring. ("They would come in, talk to Heidi for a moment, and then leave, and I thought, 'What are those girls doing?' ") She romanced David Faustino, who played Bud Bundy on Married . . . With Children, but when the former child star broke her heart, she left Los Angeles in 1995 for Boston. After a stint at Papa Razzi and a bout of amnesia from a car accident, Butler says, she landed as barkeep at Beacon Hill's Federalist. There, during a slow lunch on February 29, 2000, she waited on a stranger who looked "borderline homeless" and ordered $50 glasses of Mouton Rothschild. Turned out he was Swiss billionaire Erich Sager, who ultimately invested $3 million, she says, so she could start her own restaurant. She answers for me the question everyone asked her back then: "Honestly, I never kissed him."

Their financial alliance made news around the world. The memory of it suddenly causes Butler to crumple in tears. "This stranger gave me such a vote of confidence," she says. "Sorry, I haven't really thought about it. Like I just compartmentalize, you know? And so many people were talking about me. I am immune to what people say about me now, but I had my name dragged through the mud."

Banquettes were built and matchbooks were monogrammed, but the Sager-funded, Butler-created restaurant Zita never opened; 33 Restaurant & Lounge now fills the space on Stanhope Street. The Butler backbiters chewed on out-of-control spending, which she denies. She says she had nothing to show for the Zita debacle except maxed-out credit cards, broken friendships, deep depression, agoraphobia, and a high regard for Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays got her through the bleak period. "Emerson saved my life," she says. "He's so totally Plato."

Butler blames naivete for trusting those she says she shouldn't have. She points to Chris Rapczynski, the construction chief for Zita and her former "best friend." They no longer speak. "Personally, I was very upset with the whole situation and how it was handled," says Rapczynski. "Why is it coming up now? If I were to be truthful, it would be more harmful to her. But I wish her all the best. Restaurants are difficult things." As for her Swiss patron? "He took it as a loss," shrugs Butler. "You know, wrote it off against taxes."

For this woman who blew through millions of somebody else's money, the fickle foodie world offers a changing menu of second chances and absolution for epic goof-ups. "Restaurants are magical places to me," says Butler. You must wonder how long the abracadabra will last.

Monica Collins writes bi-weekly. E-mail her at mcollins@globe.com.

Can Gwen Butler prove to her doubters that she's no longer naive?
Can Gwen Butler prove to her doubters that she's no longer naive? (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)
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