When Terry Burns, the former general manager of the old Prospect of Westport restaurant, decided to open his own bistro in 1986, he walked across the street. Burns leased a space in the building at 4124 Pennsylvania that was built in 1903 as a barn for the horses that pulled the city's trolley cars. By the 1980s, it had been divided up into a small mall of shops.
It took Burns two years to get Californos up and running. When the bistro opened in March 1988, he greeted customers alongside his first employee, Kenny Burden (who still runs front-of-the-house operations), and his three children, Aaron, Connor and Kelly, all younger than 10 years old.
Two decades later, Burns and Californos occupy all of the space in the old building; the former shops now house a ballroom and a banquet room. Kelly Burns, now 24, is the general chef for the operation, and 29-year-old Aaron is the catering sales manager. When he's not bursting into song, that is.
Aaron spontaneously sang snatches of opera while he was setting up a buffet table for a private function last week. Although he earned a master's degree from the UMKC Conservatory of Music, Aaron does most of his vocalizing when Californos hosts its opera suppers on the third Monday of each month, with performances by several local opera singers.
Burns never imagined that Californos would outlast nearly all of its successful Westport contemporaries from the 1980s — the Prospect, the original Classic Cup, Metropolis.
"We started out as a little restaurant serving light, California-style cuisine: fish, fresh vegetables, salads. Now we're a mini convention center here, and our menu is really extensive."
To celebrate the restaurant's 20th anniversary on St. Patrick's Day, the Burns clan will lay out an Irish buffet, bring in a couple of Irish bands and host an Irish song contest.
"The business is actually more successful than I thought it would be," Burns says. "In 1988, I had this little restaurant, and by 1991, I had taken over most of the building."
That's something to sing about.