Updated: March 20, 2014 at 1:55 pm
The Margarita at PineCreek - a popular spot for multi-course dinners, brunches and all-you-can-eat soup and salad lunches - just marked 40 years in business under the watchful eye of Pati Burleson, who opened the restaurant with her late husband, Ken Davidson.
Pati and Ken graduated from Air Academy High School in 1961 as members of the first class to complete four years at the school. After attending Colorado State University in Fort Collins, the couple married and moved into Ken's family home in Black Forest. Pati took a job as a ninth-grade English teacher at Air Academy and Ken worked at Montgomery Wards.
Neither was keen on the jobs, so the couple decided to open a Mexican import business in 1969 and called it The Margarita.
"We quit our jobs so we could do something that wasn't making us crazy," Pati said.
It helped that they could open their business downtown, in a home built in 1902 where Pati's father was born.
"We were able to have our import shop in the house because it had been zoned for commercial use," Pati said.
Pati quickly discovered that she didn't like sitting around and waiting to sell something, so she cooked up the idea of serving soup and bread in the dining room. The lunches became wildly popular, and customers encouraged her to expand. She and Ken then hit on the idea of serving a theme dinner on Friday evenings.
"Much to our surprise, we learned we didn't have a building permit variance to operate a restaurant," Pati said, "and it was going to take a lot of work to get the kitchen and structure up to code. So we decided to build a new place on some property my family owned."
That was in 1972.
Down to the wire
It took about two years to complete the building, with Ken doing a lot of the work.
"We had planned to open in January of 1974, but that wasn't going to happen," Pati said. "I had sent out a letter to our regular customers that we would be open in March."
Ciel Sucher and her late husband, Richard, had booked the restaurant for their wine group.
"We had loved the restaurant downtown - the food and service and everything that went with it," Sucher said. "So we were excited to hear the new place was scheduled to open."
Pati still recalls the day when Sucher stopped by to get a peek at the new place hours before the big party.
"There was so much construction still going on that she couldn't park in the parking lot," Pati said. "She parked in a nearby church lot and walked down the hill to the restaurant. I was on the floor putting legs on some casting resin tables I had made."
Pati assured Sucher that the restaurant would be ready.
"The place went from no restaurant to being open the next night," Pati said. "Ciel couldn't believe her eyes. Once we did the party for Ciel, we were open."
And the restaurant has been open ever since.
Salad dressing becomes hit
Pati's cooking education is a combination of eating out, taking classes, traveling, reading and duplicating recipes from cookbooks such as those by Julia Child and Craig Claiborne.
Saturdays became famous at The Margarita for the Baroque Evening: a multicourse dinner accompanied by baroque music on the harpsichord, which one of Pati's aunts insisted be part of the eatery. Today the harpsichord serves more as a launching station for water pitchers and wine.
Pati was the head chef in the early days, always eager to learn about foods and techniques. Ken was the handyman and also built sculptures and operated The Gallery at PineCreek in a building next to the restaurant. In the evening, he became the host and head waiter.
"Customers who were traveling would bring new ingredients to me," Pati said. "I would try them out and figure out ways of using new things, like peppercorns. People were a huge influence. They were foodies before it was a word. They loved food and shared their finds."
Hot bread always has been featured at The Margarita. While it's served with pimento cheese today, it used to be offered with chicken liver pate.
"I loved the pate but when we expanded our seating in summer outside, the yellow jackets killed the idea of serving pate" she said. "The bees would swarm the table, and it was impossible to get rid of them. So we switched to pimento cheese."
Then there's the famous Sesame Seed Dressing, a signature condiment at The Margarita.
"We tried it on spinach salad and then added mung bean sprouts and really liked that," Pati said.
She had been making a different salad dressing every day, but once the Sesame Seed Dressing hit the lineup, it was the one everyone requested so it became a regular.
Not only did her customers ask for the dressing recipe, so did Bon Appetit. And in 1978, it was published in the magazine.
Celebrating restaurant's past
Pati's family has a long history in the Pikes Peak region.
In 1889, her grandfather and his brother rode bicycles from Iowa to Colorado Springs in search of land to mine. Her grandfather bought about 400 acres in Woodmen Valley, but mining never became a reality and he never lived on the land. Her dad had dreams of living on the land, but World War II changed those plans. When the war ended, he returned to his job with Texaco oil company and lived with his wife and five children (Pati was the middle child) in New Jersey and later in Amarillo, Texas.
In 1955, he took a job with a construction company that was contracted to build the Air Force Academy. The family moved to Colorado Springs, where they built a home on the land Pati's grandfather had bought. Pati was 12 and attended North Junior High before moving on to Air Academy.
It's not surprising that after four decades, there are so many stories to be told about life as a restaurateur.
Life for Pati has had its ups and downs, including Ken's death. He died in 1993 at the age of 50.
Pati never thought she would find another soul mate until meeting Peter Burleson, who she married in 2004. They made their home in Black Forest until it was destroyed in last year's fire. Now they are planning on building a home near The Margarita.
During March and April, Pati and her crew, headed by chefs Eric Viedt and Cathy Werle, are re-creating dishes and menus from the 1970s to celebrate the restaurant's phenomenal history.
"Eric has been working on the pâté and caldillo (soup)," she said, "and Cathy has been making pecan and French silk pies."
From noon to 3 p.m. on April 12, the crew will feature "Afternoon Tea at the Margarita," like Pati served when they first opened.