John Vartanian dies at the age of 86 after turning Visalia restaurant from a local lunch spot to one of the best restaurants in the state
VISALIA – The man whose restaurant helped put Visalia on the map passed on earlier this month.
John Vartanian, who built the Vintage Press restaurant into arguably one of best in California, died at the age of 86 on Wednesday, May 5.
John opened the original Vintage Press in Hanford in 1964 before opening the Visalia location two years later. The location on Willis Street began as a simple hofbrau offering affordable meals for lunch. David said his father began transitioning the restaurant into a fine dining establishment in the mid to late 1970s and added the picturesque bar in 1984.
“He had envisioned it as a gourmet restaurant and worked toward that goal,” David said.
All of the Vartanian children worked at the restaurant, including sons, David, who is the top chef at the restaurant, and Greg, the maître d’ of the restaurant, as well as wife Arlene. The family all helped build the restaurant into a destination where prominent people impressed guests, wooed clients and cut deals over drinks and where families gathered to celebrate life’s milestones.
“It’s the go to place for the who’s who of Visalia or anyone celebrating a special occasion,” Mayor Steve Nelsen said.
The restaurant consistently earned rave reviews from locals and visitors alike on Trip Advisor, which rates it 5 stars and the “Best Place in Visalia.” It’s also listed on California Top 10 Restaurants.com, was reviewed by the LA Times as a “bastion of culinary merit,” and Fodor’s Restaurant Review applauded its selection of more than 900 wines and “sophisticated vibe” while Wine Spectator wrote The Vintage Press has “one of the best wine lists in the world.”
“The menu encompasses a wide range of influences, meaning you could order the excellent lamb kebobs while your companion feasts on chile relleno,” wrote Frommer’s, the world’s authority on travel for more than 60 years.
Nellie Freeborn, executive director for Visit Visalia, said John worked hard to create a culture of hospitality through his welcoming and accommodating staff, seasonal menus with locally-sourced dishes and educating visitors on where their food comes from.
“The Vintage Press Restaurant has been a beacon in Visalia, attracting people from around the globe to our city with its excellent hospitality,” Freeborn said.
Nick Anthony knows all about the Vintage Press branding after spending years building it up. His firm, Nick Anthony & Associates, handled marketing for the restaurant. He said John always focused on the food, community and his family when promoting the restaurant.
“He was straightforward and purposeful in everything he did,” Anthony said. “And the restaurant was just part of what he accomplished in Visalia.”
Steve Nelsen, also executive director of Downtown Visalians, credited John as the founder of the Waiter’s Race and helped start the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. Modeled after an event had had seen in Hollywood, the Waiter’s Race brought all of the restaurants in downtown together, both quick service and full service, to see whose waiters could cross the finish line without tipping over their trays. Today, the Vartanian family owns three other Visalia restaurants including Jack and Charlie’s, The Southern Pacific Depot in downtown and Le Boulevard coffee shop on Mooney Boulevard.
All of those things, Nelsen said, were an extension of excellence that started at the Vintage Press.
“When you say ‘The VP’ in Visalia, people know you are talking about the Vintage Press,” Nelsen said.
John Gregory Vartanian, Jr. was born April 24, 1935 in Fresno to Mary Theresa Vartanian and John Gregory Vartanian Sr. He is survived by three sons John Vartanian, Greg Vartanian and David Vartanian; eight daughters Diane Farley, Karen Vartanian, Sharon Vartanian, Charlene Vartanian, Cathleen Shuklian, Carolyn Vartanian, Janice Berquist, and Lisa Vartanian. John is also survived by 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
John was preceded in death by his spouse Shirley (Stone) Vartanian (1967); spouse Arlene Vartanian (2006); son Thomas Vartanian and son (Infant) Vartanian; father John Gregory Vartanian Sr. and mother Mary Theresa Vartanian; and sister Sister Patricia Vartanian.
A mass intention for John will be held Sunday, June 20, 2021 at 10 a.m. at St. Charles Borromeo Church, 5049 W Caldwell Ave, Visalia, California 93277. Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.millerchapel.com for the Vartanian family.