Labor of Love

Characterized by an unusual name, location and beginnings, Burlingame Restaurant has crept onto local residents’ list of favorites throughout the last four years. As with everything at Burlingame, the slow burn into the hearts of Fernandina Beach’s foodies was intentional, according to co-owner Eric Fanelli.

“We don’t advertise a lot, because we’re more interested in growing organically. So, people hear about the restaurant from a friend who has been in and knows that they’ll like it,” Eric said.

Located in a former home built in Fernandina Beach’s historic downtown district in 1947, the restaurant is owned by retired couple Eric and Deb Fanelli and Chef Chad Livingston. The building, which housed a small law firm before the trio bought it, still resembles a charming cottage in a seaside village. Once you step through the inviting Kelly-green door, however, the tastefully decorated, elegant restaurant promises a gratifying one-of-a-kind dining experience.

Livingston, who is recognized as one of the region’s top chefs, decided to pursue a culinary career at the age of 17. He grew up in Fernandina Beach, and some of his fondest memories were created around a table. That’s because his relatives hail from Louisiana and Italy, and they brought their cuisine with them.

“We have big families on both my mom and dad’s side, so get-togethers were always like big feasts,” the chef said.

Livingston graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and then spent time in Colorado working in fine-dining restaurants. After a couple of years, however, he was ready to move back to Northeast Florida, and he knew exactly where he wanted to cultivate his skills.

“My goal was to work at Salt,” Livingston said.” “I saw what they were doing, and it was something that wasn’t being offered on ‘the island.’”

An upscale dining restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Luxury Beach Resort, Salt seemed like the perfect place for Livingston to hone his skills as a chef, but getting in was not as easy as he hoped. “They’re very selective on bringing people in, and they only have certain times through the year that they hire,” he said. “But I made that my goal and finally got in after pestering the chef for a while.”

Livingston apprenticed under Chef Richard Laughlin for more than four years. Then an opportunity presented itself in the form of a retired forestry worker with a desire for really good food. Livingston’s future business partner, Eric, was hoping to take over some of the household cooking duties when he retired from Rayonier, so he signed up for a cooking class at Salt. That’s when Livingston and Eric began discussing restaurants.

“I kept asking him why restaurants do all this stuff that annoys me,” Eric said. As a Rayonier employee, Eric spent 10 years in New Zealand. There, he and his wife Deb experienced what they call European-style dining, which means if you book a table, it’s yours for the night. “Dining was a big social activity,” he explained. “We would routinely have three-hour meals with friends. You’d sit, and you’d laugh, and you’d talk and you’d drink. That’s kind of what I enjoy.”

After the cooking class, Eric and Livingston continued to meet for coffee occasionally. Eric would invariably complain about something that happened at a restaurant, and he would ask Livingston, “What are you going to do when you have your own place?”

Though Eric had no plans to open a restaurant, a seed was sown. As they continued their conversations about the ideal restaurant, Eric drilled down on the business. He became intrigued with the idea of opening a restaurant in Fernandina Beach that provided the kind of dining experience he enjoyed in New Zealand.

“We just took it a step at a time,” Eric said.

After taking the crucial step of getting Deb on board, the trio started planning a Downtown Fernandina Beach eatery that serves fresh, seasonal, made-from-scratch menu items and focuses on quality service and an overall satisfying dining experience.

After Deb, whose background is in accounting, crunched the numbers, the couple agreed to finance the restaurant and work with Livingston to develop his management skills so he could take the restaurant over after five years. Ensuring they had enough capital was important for two reasons. First, Deb wanted to make sure if the whole thing went bust, the couple wouldn’t lose everything, and secondly, Eric and Livingston wanted a soft opening.

“When we opened, we said we’re not going to take more than 40 guests until we feel like we could take care of those 40 guests really well,” Eric said. “We thought the first guests should get a really good dining experience too. They shouldn’t be guinea pigs.”

As a classically trained chef, Livingston presents a carefully selected, tightly focused menu. “I really wanted to focus on that quality and the craftsmanship of the dish,” Livingston said. Because he chooses fresh, seasonal meat, seafood, vegetables and fruits, the menu changes frequently, but he works hard to keep it balanced.

Entrees include seafood, meat and poultry dishes in addition to a seasonal vegetarian option, but patrons could make a meal out of the intriguing starters and small plates. Smoked fish dip gets a Eurasian treatment with house-made lavash and a pickle assortment. The charred octopus is served with crispy potatoes, pickled celery, orange segments, spicy aioli and watercress, and the grilled romaine salad leans toward extravagant with smoked trout roe, Caesar dressing, shaved radish, pickled shallot, sourdough croutons, parmesan and fried capers.

Livingston points out that the sourdough croutons are house made—as is everything at Burlingame. “We make everything,” Livingston said. “The ice cream, the pasta…everything is made in house…except maybe the ketchup.”

Though Eric jokes about the couple being hired help for Livingston, the trio is, in many ways, the perfect team. Livingston brings the food and restaurant-industry experience; Eric brings his experience as a manager; and Deb lends her accounting and administrative skills. In the beginning, she also lent her excellent taste and decorating skills. “There are two things people talk a lot about in addition to the food: the name and the photographs on the wall,” Deb said.

From the beginning, Deb had a vision for the restaurant’s aesthetic. She wanted a clean, simple design. Having the colors in mind, she found some great abstract art pieces. She showed them to Eric and Livingston who thought they were nice, but they had one question: “Where’s the food?”

“I was a little pissed for a while,” Deb laughed. “But then I went back to the drawing board.” The compromise: Deb found some beautiful abstract art pictures that were also food. The pieces she chose for the restaurant’s walls have been a hit with the customers, but they can’t always tell what they’re looking at.
“We’ll see people walking around the restaurant and you can tell they‘re looking at the artwork,” Eric said. “So that’s an invitation to go over and ask, ‘So what do you think it is?’ It’s a fun game that a lot of people play.”

When the time came to name the restaurant, the owners knew more about what they didn’t want then what they did.

“[Livingston] didn’t want to be tied to a cuisine,” Eric said. “We didn’t want to be tied to Amelia, Fernandina Beach, coastal, the beach…anything like that.”

As they were tossing around ideas, Deb suggested Burlingame. “It’s my dad’s mother’s maiden name,” Deb said. They all agreed on the name and moved on.

“Once we decided on it, I never really thought about it again, but when we opened, it was such a conversation starter,” Eric said. “Everybody wants to know where the name came from.”

After experiencing the highs and lows of a new restaurant, the Fanellis say they’ve finally hit their stride. The community seems to agree; Burlingame has grown from a 40-seat restaurant to a restaurant with a seating capacity of 150. They recently added mixed drinks to the menu, and they’ve upgraded the patio to allow for all-weather seating. The couple has learned that the restaurant business is forward-moving, fast-paced and, above all, demanding.

“You can never rest on your laurels,” Deb said. “Every single night we want the people walking out the door saying, ‘That was a fantastic meal I had. I loved everything about it.’”