John Ghoukassian – October 21, 1936 to March 15, 2021 – was one of Irvine’s and Orange County’s most beloved restaurateurs. As the founder/owner of Bistango in Irvine and Bayside in Newport Beach, he combined his love of fine food and wine with his admiration for art, filling his restaurants with paintings and sculpture, from impressionism to modern and contemporary art styles.
Born in Isfahan, Iran of Armenian parents, he was proud that his ancestors moved from Armenia to Isfahan, as the city — the capital of Iran during the 16th century — was known for its classic Persian/Islamic architecture.
Ghoukassian, the middle child of two brothers, both of them deceased, was named after his grandfather, Johnny Khan, Khan being an honorific title in Iran. He grew up with his cultured parents, Ghazar (Lazar) Ghoukassian and Mary Peters, and with his maternal grandmother, an excellent cook who was admired for her exceptional baking, jam and marmalades.
At age 18, he went to England and then to Germany for his studies, which included engineering. He traveled throughout Europe during summer vacations, visiting cafes and bistros where paintings by local artists, some of them Impressionists, were exhibited. He especially enjoyed Italy where he immersed himself in the art there. “It was during those formative years in Europe as a young man that he found and developed his sense of culture,” his wife Diana explains.
She adds, “While I knew John and his family from childhood, as his younger brother, Varuj, and I played together, I met John again when he returned to Tehran from Germany at age 29. His father had just purchased a building and was wondering what to do with it.”
While Ghoukassian had no business experience, he decided to engage his own luxury-loving persona, while challenging himself to do something special with his father’s building. He recruited his architect friend Michael Carapetian to design the building as a restaurant, and named it Chattanooga. Soon after, he opened a restaurant that he called Art Gallery Restaurant Lautrec, and then one named Mirabelle. Along with serving contemporary European and Iranian cuisine at these venues, he satiated customers’ visual appetites by displaying European Impressionist works on the walls.
Diana adds, “As he worked alongside his architect friend, he realized that he was interested in design and in all things artistic.” Over the successive decades, he assisted in designing several more restaurants in Iran and in Southern California.
John and Diana were married on April 30, 1971, and would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this month.
Ghoukassian moved to the United States in 1983, opening Bistango in Beverly Hills the following year. He decorated the restaurant with world-class art, while evoking the ambience of the European cafes he enjoyed during his early adulthood. In 1989, he closed the L.A. restaurant and soon after opened Bistango, also designed by Carapetian, in the elegant Atrium Building in Irvine. He opened Bayside restaurant in Newport Beach in 1999 and Kimera (closed in 2013), also in Irvine, a few years later.
While fine restaurants throughout the Southland display original art, Ghoukassian’s venues are unique, combining features of art galleries with world-class dining. Bistango and Bayside are so well-known for their revolving art shows that major collectors regularly attend their openings. The restaurants are also known for live jazz concerts.
The Ghoukassians have two children, Marc and Karyn, who grew up in Cannes, France, and then moved to Irvine in 1989. They are co-owners of Bistango and Bayside, “as John always shared everything with Marc and Karyn and made them partners in every business he had,” Diana said.
John Ghoukassian is survived by his wife, Diana, his children Marc and Karyn and by three nieces.