Westport’s Californos closes: ‘We are not going to be known for how it ended’

Westport restaurant Californos, which opened in 1988, has shuttered.

After its last three years of troubles, the founder hopes it will not be known for its rough end but for all it brought to the community.

“We put a ‘closed for the holiday’ sign up on May 25. But that was so we wouldn’t cause anyone to panic while we got the brides’ deposits back. I wasn’t going to leave them hanging,” said founder Terry Burns. “We did the best we could. We are done.”

Californos opened in a horseshoe-shaped shopping center in Westport on St. Patrick’s Day 1988. The 12,500-square-foot operation was spread over three levels at 4124 Pennsylvania Ave., including the restaurant, wedding and private party venue in the Trolley Barn, catering operation, live music venue the Saloon, which was only open a couple of nights a week, and a shaded courtyard.

There the upscale restaurant made its bread-and-butter on events, especially wedding receptions.

“Brides were paying our rent,” Burns said.

But in August 2017, a DJ had just finished an oldies set on the back deck of Californos with only 30 more minutes to go. The bar had already closed for the event, Recovery Sunday, which was becoming known as “one of the most chic and polished hangouts for Kansas City’s black millennial crowd.” But about 8:30 p.m. there were gunshots, leaving one dead — a Lee’s Summit police officer — and one injured. A month later, a 22-year-old man was charged with second-degree murder.

Then, in April 2018, Californos was shut down for more than two weeks for health code violations. The Kansas City Health Department said 126 people reported illness after attending one of two events catered by Californos. The department suspected either salmonella or norovirus could be the cause of the illness, but the exact cause could not be determined because it was not able to collect stool samples.

Burns said he lost a “ton of money” and either needed to stop or regroup. In late 2018, two brothers, both development attorneys raised in Wichita, came in as investors, hoping to buy Burns out within a decade. The brothers said they left the business in late January.

Burns couldn’t keep up with the rent and will move out by June 30. The workers will get one more check and the brides’ deposits will be mailed on June 10, he said

“It was a rough ending — the shooting, I was right there, the worse day of my life. .... The poison from the virus, trying to work with new partners,” Burns said. “But we are not going to be known for how it ended, we are going to be known for all the things we did right — offering a stage to hundreds of artists, getting a lot of people married over the years, all the great food. We have a lot to be thankful for. But everything ends.”

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Joyce Smith has covered restaurant and retail news for The Star since 1989 under the brand Cityscape. She appreciates news tips.