John Ghoukassian, founder and owner of Bistango, is an ardent admirer of 19th and 20th century European art. Growing up in Tehran in the mid-20th century, he often visited European cities, gravitating to cafes and bistros displaying paintings by local Impressionists.

When he chose a career in the 1970s, he combined his three loves – fine food, wine and art – and opened the acclaimed gourmet restaurant, “Lautrec,” in Tehran. He served European and Persian cuisine, while exhibiting Impressionist art on the restaurant walls.

Ghoukassian moved to the United States in 1983, and soon after opened Bistango (meaning bistro in French) restaurant in Los Angeles. He again adorned the restaurant walls with fine art, creating the look and feel of the European bistros he loved. Three years later, he closed the L.A. location and opened a similar restaurant, also called Bistango, in Orange County. Located in the Atrium Building in Irvine, near the former Irvine Museum, the venue was designed by Venice-based architect Michael Carapetian as a combination restaurant and art gallery. The popular site, which recently reopened for outdoor dining, has exhibited art on its walls since its inception, while serving food that Ghoukassian calls “new American cuisine.” The extensive wine list includes award-winning varieties.

Antoinette Sullivan, curator of Bistango’s art shows for more than 30 years, explains, “We presented our first art exhibition there at the restaurant’s opening in November 1987. We have hosted over 120 art shows displaying more than a thousand artists from Southern California and around the world.”

The many artists whose works have been exhibited there include Lita Albuquerque, Carlos Almaraz, Chuck Arnoldi, Billy Al Bengston, Paul Bond, Richard Diebenkorn, Laddie John Dill, Frank Dixon, Ray Jacob, Russell Jacques, Tom Lamb, Ed Moses, Eric Orr, Ron Pastucha, Ellen Rose, Fred Stoddard and Mia Tavonatti. Several of these artists have also exhibited at Bayside, which Ghoukassian owns.

Mia Tavonatti, Santita (Sanctity), Oil on canvas

Sullivan is honored to have exhibited the work of sculptor Márton Váró at Bistango. “I met Márton in 1987,” she says, “after he arrived here from Hungary. I showed his work in our first exhibition and in others. In the early 1990s, friends and collectors Paul and Barbara Casanova commissioned Márton to work on a six-foot Persian Travertine stone sculpture, ‘Standing Figure.’ The piece was later donated to the Laguna College of Art and Design. In 2015, I introduced Márton to Louise Jacobs, Pacific Symphony Director, Group and Corporate Sales.” Váró was soon after commissioned to create a life-size marble sculpture of Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St. Clair. “Maestro Carl St. Clair” was dedicated in 2019 and installed in Costa Mesa’s Pacific Symphony Headquarters.

Márton Váró, 33 Cubes, Carrara marble

Bistango exhibitor Bill Havlicek creates abstract paintings that are inspired by Courbet, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Wyeth, De Kooning, Gorky, Guston and Diebenkorn, as he explains. “He works with layers of color producing very subtle transparencies with a special luminosity,” Sullivan says.

Another Bistango exhibiting artist is Irvine based Mark Leysen. He builds large abstract expressionist paintings based on color and rhythm, with geometric forms providing balance and harmony. “Mark displayed his paintings at our first exhibition and at our 30th anniversary show,” Sullivan says. “Today, he is considered one of the foremost abstract artists in Southern California.”

Bistango has presented three to four exhibitions each year, providing an eclectic mix of styles and media by established, mid-career and emerging artists. “Several who exhibited at Bistango early in their careers went on to achieve national and even international acclaim,” says Sullivan. “Many collectors and art lovers have visited and dined at Bistango in part because of its quality art shows.”

Mark Leysen, Take Three, Acrylic on canvas

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic caused restaurants to close in 2020, Sullivan discontinued curating shows at Bistango. When the restaurant later began opening intermittently, Ghoukassian’s wife Diana, an art collector, photographic artist and gallery owner, began curating the art exhibitions. She chooses art pieces from her personal collection and from her gallery in the Atrium Building, “Diana’s Finds.”

Diana, born in Iran to Armenian parents and schooled in Europe, speaks eight languages and collects art from all over the world. The current exhibition at Bistango, reflecting her eclectic tastes, is an amalgam of 19th to 21st century art pieces. (While dining at Bistango is currently in a covered space just outside of the restaurant, visitors are welcome to enter it to look at the art she presents.)

One of the more expressive artworks there is a vintage photograph of John Lennon, signed by Robert Freeman, the Beetles’ photographer from 1962 to 1966. Nearby there is a sensual nude photo of Marilyn Monroe, shot in 1962 by photographer Bert Stern. There are two art deco style posters by Erté. Another poster, announcing a Picasso exhibition, is from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

Chris Gwaltney, Untitiled, Oil on canvas

Local artists whose works also adorn the restaurant walls include Chris Gwaltney. His “Untitled” oil, combining realism with abstraction and gestural brushwork, is a richly colorful composition, containing a shadowy human figure. James Strombotne contributes a dark brooding watercolor to the venue. Jim Dine’s “Eight Hearts” is a semi-abstract painting depicting eight hearts. Other artists whose works are there are Peter Max, Wayne Thiebaud, Byron Galvez, Paul Jenkins and Fernand Leger.

“Bistango has presented food and wine connoisseurs with an inspiring selection of museum quality art exhibits for many years,” Sullivan says. “The restaurant is known as much for its rotating art shows as for its fine dining and wine list. And John Ghoukassian has been involved in every detail of the exhibitions, from the art selection to the hanging of paintings and placing of sculptures. It is incredible that this wonderful dining oasis has been a cultural center for more than 30 years.”

Indeed, Bistango’s three-plus decade of success demonstrates that fine art, great food and world-class wine can merge seamlessly when presented with grace and devotion to details. For lunch, Bistango offers a variety of salads as appetizers and entrees, along with burgers sandwiches, rice and pasta selections. Dinner entrees include Chilean Sea Bass, Tamarind-Chili Glazed Salmon, New Zealand Te Mana Lamb Chops, chicken and beef selections. Tiramisu and cheesecake, among other selections are offered for dessert.

Bistango, 19100 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (949) 752-5222. Open for dining and viewing art, Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m-8 p.m., Fri., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat., 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting Irvine Weekly and our advertisers.