By Greg Niemann
Serving French and international cuisine along with local Mexican fare, the El Rey Sol in Ensenada is Baja’s most honored restaurant and still reigns as a gourmand’s gem.
It appears an anomaly, a fine French restaurant, serene and sedate, with a menu that includes Duck Aux Beaux Arts and Grilled Salmon with Champagne Sauce, just steps from fish taco stands and vendors of blankets and inexpensive souvenir trinkets.
By the time that dessert pastry tray was presented, we knew we had not just enjoyed a meal, but experienced an intricate work of art that is so prized by lovers of French cuisine.
“The Sun King”
The El Rey Sol is a culinary institution celebrating its 70th Anniversary this year. Spanish for The Sun King (Le Roi Soleil in French), it was a popular title given to France’s King Louis XIV. El Rey Sol opened its doors on May 23, 1947 as a modest 10-table restaurant on Ocean Blvd. at Calle Primera y Blancarte.
The founding force was Virginia (Doña Pepita) Geffroy de Bitterlin, daughter of a French engineer (who worked at the Santa Rosalia Boleo copper mine in Baja California Sur Territory), and his Mexican bride, Refugio (Cuca) Pozo, from Mulege. Pepita was born March 17, 1910.
In 1920 the Geffroy children were sent to France to live with relatives where they stayed until they made French marriages. Doña Pepita remained abroad for 18 years during which time she married the French artist Jacques Bitterlin and gave birth to her first child, Jacqueline. Two daughters and a son were later born in Mexico.
While in France Doña Pepita became interested in cooking and delighted her sisters and cousins and aunts with delectable repasts from her kitchen. She took classes in French cuisine at the famed Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. She experimented with inventions of her own and gradually became a very fine chef.
By the 1940s the copper mine at Santa Rosalia had declined, so Pepita joined her sister Mayo and husband Gaston Flourie in the Baja California port town of Ensenada. They had established the Casa Del Sol motel on the town’s sandy thoroughfare and Pepita was encouraged to develop a restaurant. Thus, the El Rey Sol was born.
The décor of the original restaurant was done by Jacques Bitterlin, by this time a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and one of the principal artists of the peninsula.
The family established Rancho Las Ánimas in the Santo Tomás area where to this day, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables are grown for the restaurant.
The establishment prospered under the day-to-day attention of the family members, including Pepita’s mother, Doña Cuca, who provided personal attention to the clientele.
A hit from the beginning
The eatery was a hit from the beginning. The 1953 book “Baja California’ by Ralph Hancock, Ray Haller, Mike McMahan and Frank Alvarado states: “Restaurant El Rey Sol is in the latter motel (Casa Del Sol). It is reputed to be one of the best in town, serves French, American and Mexican food and advertises a specialty or two: lobster a la cardinal, coquilles Saint Jacques, Vol-au-vent and filet mignon.”
In just a few years the restaurant was forced to move to larger quarters across the street to its present site on Ave. López Mateos and Ave. Blancarte.
Pepita trained Candido Pacheco, an Ensenada farm boy and discovered he had a natural flair for cooking. For over 35 years, Candido and his two brothers presided over the kitchen at El Rey Sol. Candido was guest chef at the 65th anniversary celebration in 2012.
Employee loyalty at the family-run restaurant is evident by the fact that at the 50-year anniversary, 12 employees had been at El Rey Sol for 25 or more years and one waitress, Aldegunda Beltran had retired with 45 years of service.
The restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary by another expansion in 1972. The new contemporary Mediterranean design offered seating for 240 featuring two elegant and intimate banquet rooms and a modern stainless-steel kitchen. The main dining room has plates and copper pans hanging from thick beams overhead.
I noted the thick, padded wallpaper and stained-glass windows complete with the French fleur d’lis. Cushioned footstools reposed nearby, and freshly cut roses enhanced every table. The restaurant’s extensive wine list features primarily local, Ensenada-grown vintages.
A host of awards
The El Rey Sol began garnering a host of culinary awards and honors, including the coveted Grand Mexican Award in 1981, 1983, 1986, 1988 and 1989. It became the only restaurant in North America to win the award five times. In 1996, owner Jean-Loup Bitterlin, Pepita’s son and proprietor, was summoned to Madrid, Spain to accept the Gran Collar de Oro (Grand Collar of Gold) award, one of only 11 restaurants in the world to receive the honor. It has been recognized by The American Academy of Hospitality Sciences with the “Five Star Diamond Award” (given to the top 50 restaurants in Mexico), for 9 recent years in a row.
With the recognition came a host of luminaries. Six Mexican Presidents have sampled the French cuisine in the humble port city of Ensenada. On one visit, my waiter Marco recalled greeting four of them: Jose Lopez Portillo, Miguel de la Madrid, Carlos Salinas and President Ernesto Zedillo (who attended the restaurant’s 50th anniversary.)
Other international celebrities who have dined at El Rey Sol include John Wayne, James Garner, Anthony Quinn, Jacques Costeau, Mario “Cantinflas” Moreno, Hulk Hogan, two Miss Universes and Vikki Carr (who also headlined the restaurant’s 40th anniversary banquet and concert).
I enjoyed a recent meal there too. The thick, hot bolillos (rolls) were perfect, crunchy on the outside, with warm, rich dough inside. The appetizer plate could have sated me, but I was selective and enjoyed cold potatoes whipped up in some kind of egg and mustard sauce. I ordered stuffed calamari and it came very tender and stuffed with all sort of goodies from the sea and was topped with some type of rich sauce.
While I didn’t get the recipe for my meal, the restaurant made a couple recipes public, including:
Clams: Style Coquille Saint Jacques
Cook the soft edible parts of fresh Pismo clams whole with onion and parsley in a little dry white wine (about 20 minutes). Grind.
To the ground clams add chopped onion sauteed in butter, chopped mushrooms; salt and pepper. Let cook 10 minutes.
Make a bechamelle (cream) sauce with hot butter and flour, adding hot milk and stirring constantly to make a thick white sauce. Salt to taste.
Combine bechamelle with the clam mixture. Fill the shells with this combination, and add ground gruyere or jack cheese and ground bread. Grill until golden.
The El Rey Sol’s al fresco dining gazebo out front sports a distinctive royal blue covering, outdoor heaters, wrought iron tables and chairs, and most importantly, a crepes bar. Crepes vary from simple, to sugar-covered, to Crepes Grand Marnier, all in the $4-$5 range. I couldn’t walk past the place recently and smugly enjoyed outstanding mango crepes and coffee as I watched the world go by.
Grupo El Rey Sol
The Grupo El Rey Sol enterprise encompasses five businesses: Restaurant El Rey Sol, the nearby Hotel Posada El Rey Sol (package deals with the restaurant available), the Casa de los Siete Patios (large home available for weddings and events), the Villa Bitterlin (an ocean-front boutique villa for rent), and Cibola del Mar (ocean-front real estate condos). Jean-Loup Bitterlin is the grupo’s general manager.
The oldest French restaurant in all of Mexico established a non-profit foundation for the community in the form of the Don Bosco Ciudad de los Niños Orphanage. After establishing the fund, Virginia “Pepita” Geffroy passed away in January 1989. Later that year the Don Bosco “Children’s City” opened to provide a permanent home to 43 boys under age 15.
The restaurant is the big draw and recent TripAdvisor comments confirm that it’s still going strong:
“This is fine dining at its best in Ensenada…family run since 1947 and has won many awards for their excellent seafood, distinctive international cuisine and impeccable service.”
“Mexico’s oldest French restaurant prides itself on a diverse menu, professional staff and sophisticated atmosphere. The extensive French menu includes seafood, chicken, steak, Caesar salad for two prepared tableside and a few traditional Mexican dishes. Our ample portions always include fresh vegetables.”
“Great French restaurant in Ensenada, Mexico. Been coming here for over 20 years! El Pato a las Bellas Arte is a must. Savory duck with fresh fruit marinated together! Sweetness!”
That reviewer called the duck “sweetness.” For me, sweetness is that succulent mango crepe. Hey, it’s all pretty awesome stuff.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.