April 6, 2024
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A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO’s Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

Tulum is quite different from what it was 20 years ago when James Gardner, Grupo GITANO’s Founder and CEO, first discovered the untouched paradise thanks to a fashion insider friend who recommended Tulum. Back then, according to the former Wall Street tech-savant-businessman turned fashion-restaurant-hospitality powerhouse, the area was simply miles of white sand beaches and crystal blue Caribbean Ocean — not much else. It was a place only known to a few fashion industry insiders who did shoots there, along with hippies and nomads.

“When we discovered it was just an hour further than Miami but a whole other world, we fell in love with the unmatched natural beauty, the rich heritage from the Mayans and the Spanish Colonial towns of the Yucatan, and the short, direct flight from NYC,” explains Gardner. “Every time we were in St. Barts, Mykonos, Ibiza or even Miami Beach, we would often say that we wished Tulum had somewhere to get dressed up and go out for dinner and dancing! So, we created GITANO!”

After time spent entrepreneuring in both business and technology, particularly at the intersection of tech and high fashion, Gardner shifted gears and established what is now known as Grupo GITANO in the summer of 2013. From GITANO Jungle Tulum, the original glammed out, mezcal-fueled-club-restaurant to MEZE Tulum, the group’s newer Greek taverna, to GITANO Island, a New York City dining destination on Governors Island that’s reopening for the summer season this month, the GITANO footprint on international glitz and glamor is only growing.

We chatted with James Gardner, Grupo GITANO’s Founder and CEO, on Grupo GITANO’s beginnings, restaurant concepts, ethos and inspiration and more. Here’s what he had to say.

What was the catalyst in you deciding to open up your first restaurant spot in Tulum?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

It is hard to believe that was almost ten years ago. During the summer of 2013 I started a whole new chapter in life, as a human discovering that the Universe has a master plan, discovering the power of meditation, gratitude, and kindness, but also a whole new career in hospitality, building on my experience on Wall St. and having built an innovative digital and e-commerce company, working with leading fashion and luxury brands.

At the end of 2013, my partner Andrew and I decided to uproot from New York City and move to our favorite place, Tulum. Today Tulum is a booming center of development and has changed a lot, but it is still paradise of spectacular natural beauty and there is no place like Tulum in the world.

How do each of the three spots in Tulum differ in terms of vibe, food and style?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

GITANO Jungle Tulum is our original location and the mother ship, so to speak; it’s a shining, sparkling jewel in the crown. It started as a small mezcal bar and tiny kitchen at the end of 2013 and today has evolved into a 15,000 square foot, glamorous and beautiful outdoor dining experience, in the jungle under the stars. Over the years it has grown both in size and in every aspect of the operation, just as we have done as a brand. Our concept and vibe since the start has dinner and dancing, a fun and glamorous restaurant to get dressed up and go for dinner, a place to see and be seen. Delicious food, amazing cocktails, and fun, happy music.

While most of the property is outdoors, protected from the elements under our signature wood pergolas, at the end of 2017 we opened the GITANO Jungle Room at the back of the property, which we designed as a tropical cabaret, a Spanish Colonial inspired building that looks like it was lost in the jungle for 100 years. It is so glamorous and chic. It really elevated the property and the brand overall.

GITANO Beach Tulum GITANO Beach is a chic and glamorous restaurant and beach club with delicious food, cocktails, and sunset fiestas located on white sand and crystal blue Caribbean Ocean. Conde Nast Traveler has listed GITANO Beach as one of the best beach clubs in the world again this year.

MEZE Tulum is our Greek Taverna, a sister restaurant that opened a few doors down from GITANO. It is set in a beautiful white hacienda that transports our guests to the Aegean seas. The menu is designed around Greek tradition as though cooked by Yaya, our Greek grandma. The property is the most beautiful and the food the most delicious in Tulum by far.

What is the inspiration for Gitano as a brand?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

GITANO was born in the Tulum jungle; we are inspired by the unmatched natural beauty and the rich heritage, architecture, food, and culture of the Yucatán, from the ancient Mayans to the Spanish colonial towns of the Yucatan. Tulum has attracted a vibrant and diverse community of nomads, free-spirits, eclectic, curious, conscious, and creatives over the years and this a core part of the GITANO brand.

Since the beginning we have looked to take a fresh and innovative approach to hospitality, looking through a bohemian fashion lens and bringing a little of our fun fashion frolics, living in NYC since the late 90s, this is where the glamour, disco and runways come from. Initially we brought a little of NYC to Tulum then in 2018 we exported GITANO and a slice of Tulum back to NYC!

Our approach to everything, architecture and design, food and beverage, our unique sound identify, and hospitality overall is bohemian and glamorous, our design aesthetic is understated elegance, we celebrate the perfection in imperfection. We love juxtapositions, like our iconic brand symbols: a pink neon sign set against the lush green jungle, a giant disco ball floating under the stars in coconut palms. Our mission is sharing love and happiness, and we are building a new kind of cultural brand, with a big heart.

We are living mindfully, sustainably, supporting, and giving back to our community, in particular minorities within the LGBTQ+ community. We now have five locations in Tulum, Miami Beach and NYC. We are so excited about our newest location GITANO ISLAND set on Governors Island NYC.

It takes all of the best elements of the GITANO brand and all of our other properties and integrates them to create an experience like no other in the world! GITANO ISLAND is a dramatic almost 30,000 square foot waterfront Restaurant and Beach Club, unmatched in NYC and only a 5 minute boat ride from Casa Cipriano with spectacular views of the city. We are so excited to open GITANO ISLAND in May 2023.

Talk about the menu highlights from your newest restaurant, Meze and how this restaurant is different from the others?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

We opened MEZE Tulum as a sister to the GITANO restaurant concept. Where GITANO is Modern Mexican, MEZE is ancient Greek! We designed a large open kitchen at the front of the restaurant with wood burning oven, large wood burning grill and smoker with a rustic oversized wood chefs prep table. Our MEZE kitchen is a stage for culinary theatre. It’s fun of course being part of the GITANO family, but food and the dining experience are exceptional and the core concepts breaking bread over Yaya, our Greek Grandmas, home cooked food!

We value tradition over trend at MEZE. The meze platter is so delicious, hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki and tyrokafteri served with home baked sourdough pita and cucumbers. We are known for our salt baked catch of the day, enflamed at the table. Our woodfired lobster is the divine, cooked on the wood grill and finished off in the brick oven. The eggplant imam is a favorite with vegans and vegetarians. Our Yaya’s Cake, a basque burnt cheese cake with cherry compote and our home made olive oil ice cream are not to be missed.

What can guests expect when dining at a Gitano property? Music? DJ? Party scene?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

Drama! In the best possible way! A transportive experience: gorgeous design, a world class modern Mexican menu, amazing mezcal cocktails, super fun music, lots of fun and of course glamour! From the moment you enter, each property has a long, dramatic runway entrance and the moment you hit that catwalk you are on stage, so get ready to be seen, to see and to have so much fun! The food is the heart and soul of every restaurant and is delicious, the vibe and the music are transportive. We program local and international talent both live music and DJs at all locations.

At all our properties, we transport guests to another place and even another time. We designed our Jungle Room in Tulum to look like it was built 100 years ago and discovered hidden in the Jungle, taking guests back to the glamour of pre-revolution Cuba, perhaps. MEZE Tulum, our sister Greek Taverna restaurant, transports guest to the Aegean Islands in our whitewashed hacienda with Yaya’s home cooked Greek Food. And then of course there is GITANO Island in NYC, reopening in May 2023, which transports guests, well, to Tulum Beach without taking a flight!

So, we hope our guests leave every experience at GITANO having had a lot of fun, with new connections, new dance partners, in a way that they almost don’t know what just happened, and they spread the word and come back for more!

Who is behind the menus? What inspires the cuisine?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

We started out as Tulum Beach’s first bar with a very small kitchen but quickly learned the importance of high-quality food and an innovative menu which we have developed over the years since we first opened. When Noma came to Tulum for a pop up in 2017, we knew we had to step up our culinary game.

We hired a Noma alumni chef Mads Refslund who worked closely with me to create our core menu concept, taking an elevated approach and the discipline from fine dining but pairing it back, keeping it simple and sophisticated and thereby more accessible. In 2019 when we opened GITANO Miami Beach, we hired our Executive Chef Antonio Maldonaldo from Puebla in Mexico, who has not only updated the menu but has had a dramatic impact on our culinary offering, infusing authentic Mexican flavors and traditions.

What is your favorite dish out of the three properties?

Well that’s a hard one! The Lobster Tostada with big chunks of fresh local lobster, chipotle mayo and cilantro is our take on a lobster roll served in all GITANO locations and is a big hit, I love it! The branzino in banana leaf with spinach and tomatillo is also at all locations and a star. I am personally very excited by the new dinner menu that Chef Antonio has just created at GITANO Beach Tulum with a grilled avocado and hiramassa totsdada, and an incredible short rib birria! We will have an exciting new menu this season at GITANO ISLAND in NYC also, to be announced very soon!

Can you expand on the bar program? Is there a certain vibe or taste you go for? Also, what is your favorite cocktail at any of the properties?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

We started out as Tulum’s first mezcal bar and one of the first mezcal bars more broadly back in 2013. Mezcal remains an important part of our culture and beverage program today. We worked with closely with local mixologists to create a superb cocktail program, and quickly became known for our cocktails. I personally curated the cocktails and had a lot of fun naming them.

Our most famous cocktail is the “Jungle Fever”, a spicy mezcal margarita with fresh lime juice, cilantro and chile, served and a favorite all locations. “Kisses In The Car” is mezcal with fresh passionfruit juice and habanero. “Disco 75” is our twist on the glamorous French 75, with rose prosecco and vodka, served in a coup.

What’s in the pipeline for Gitano?

A Decade of Extravaganza: Grupo GITANO's Spectacular Journey in Tulum and Beyond

GITANO ISLAND will be reopening with a big splash in May 2023 and we are so excited to unveil the new season, with a new menu, exciting events, and a full summer of fun programming! It will certainly be the place to be in NYC this summer! We absolutely love Mexico and in particular Mexico City. We had a very successful pop-up during Zona Maco 2022 and are now working to transform the property in Juarez into our permanent home GITANO MEXICO CITY later this year.

People have told us for some time that they wish to stay with us; they love the design, the vibe, the culture, and community of GITANO. So we are actively working on the launch of CASA GITANO Hotels & Residences, but it’s too early to share more than that. We gave a little taste in Tulum with a CASA GITANO pop-up and will announce more news. We are grateful to have many people approaching us to take GITANO to other locations, but we are very focused on ensuring that any new location is unique and perfect in every way. We see the next GITANO locations in Los Angeles of course, Europe and Dubai.

By Chelsea Davis, website: website

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