By Greg Niemann
I heard through the Baja grapevine that Orest “Joe” Dmytriw (Who answers to either “Joe” or “Dimitri”) had reopened the original La Fonda restaurant. It had been a long time since his iconic restaurant on that Baja bluff 19 miles south of Rosarito Beach was shuttered in 2002 due to striking waiters.
Checking out that grapevine rumor, I returned. Years earlier, before the old La Fonda closed I had interviewed Dimitri and had written about the place. Weekend homeowners in the area, as well as those seeking a discrete hideaway had flocked to La Fonda which billed itself as “The Most Beautiful Place on the Coast.”
It was certainly one of the most memorable and romantic settings, an old Mexican inn perched on a verdant brush-covered cliff overlooking a broad, sandy beach where dolphins frolic offshore and whales can be seen in winter. The tile patio had tables half-hidden behind dense potted palms, thick banana trees and magenta bougainvillea. They were shaded with thatch umbrellas to provide framing for dynamite views of dramatic sunsets.
That outside patio was the crowning glory of La Fonda, which is why we sometimes went there for breakfast or lunch. The restaurant inside is perfect for cooler evenings. A rip-roaring fire in the fireplace and dancing to the live music made it a fun place to be.
From the mid-1970s through the 1990s, I went there a lot and got to know many of the staff at La Fonda. Early on, the live combo played more for listening enjoyment rather than dancing and people used to crowd the old piano bar to hear Salvador on the ivories, Carlos on the drums, and Alfonso with the conga drum. They all sang along too and Alfonso had a marvelous rich, tenor voice. About two or three times each night one of us would cajole them into doing “Granada” just to marvel at Alfonso’s wonderful range.
Sara and Orest Dmytriw
La Fonda was built and developed in 1962 by Eve Stocker on a beachfront bluff 37 miles south of the border. Orest “Joe” Dmytriw, a Ukrainian/Canadian/American and his wife Sara bought the place in 1975 and through their improvements and guidance created the popular retreat. It was a small restaurant with a few rooms and 16 employees when they took over. By 2002, La Fonda provided employment to almost 100 locals and featured 26 guest rooms.
The old hotel was a real hideaway with the cliff-side rooms reached by stairs meandering down the bluff. The rustic old rooms are whimsical and fun, and even have funky names; no two rooms are alike. There are suites and rooms with private balconies and kitchens, and/or sunken fireplaces and big tubs. The rooms all peek out of the foliage for dramatic views of the ocean.
The Old Mexico feeling is everywhere, from the cobblestone parking out front, to the tile throughout, to the broad sweeping window views, to the tropical plants and thatched patio.
I know several people from Southern California who used to stay occasionally at La Fonda. Many from Hollywood had discovered the charm of Old Mexico. Eva Gabor spent her honeymoon at La Fonda, in #14, the Gold Room. Frank Sinatra, Phil Harris and Bob Crosby have also all reputedly been among the legions of customers to the romantic inn on the bluff.
Local expatriates along the Gold Coast were loyal La Fonda customers. And with reason. Gregarious owner/host Dimitri has a knack for making his customers feel special. He has a warm, “Hey, good to see you again. How have you been?” greeting to friends old and new. He makes your first-time guests think that the two of you go way back, even if he can’t quite recall your name. His welcoming “Please seat your beautiful selves” has become his memorable identity.
I’d marveled at Dimitri’s graciousness and his and Sara’s dedication to preserving the charm that meant La Fonda. I’d watched waiters mature and age and even noted the retirement of the elderly Lupe Fuentes, who often bungled my order, but he did it with a smile.
So I was doubly surprised back in 2002 when striking waiters forced the place to close.
An uneasy labor situation would not allow the restaurant to reopen. Under Mexican law, the hotel was unable to replace the 92 striking restaurant staff as long as its original kitchen and restaurant remained open for business. No problem for the creative Dimitri. He boarded the place up and moved.
He and his wife Sara vacated their living quarters on the north end of the property and reestablished La Fonda Restaurant there, just yards from the original place. The “new” La Fonda offered similar wave-smashing views and the quality good value food that made it a beautiful destination hideaway.
The Rettigs Take Over
But for some time Dimitri had been wanting to sell and slow down, and in 2004 he sold the whole restaurant/hotel complex to Dr. Gary (Doc) Rettig, a retired Newport Beach chiropractor and his wife Shawnie. The “new” La Fonda continued to attract the area’s expats and visitors, and the Rettigs added a spa and 10 more hotel rooms, all offering front row seats to the white-water below.
Then things changed. The devastating 2008-2009 recession was especially hard on Mexico. On top of the dwindling U.S. economy, tourists had to acquire passports, but most devastating was the pervasive negative publicity. Americans were constantly being admonished by the sensationalist media that the country was not safe. Tourism in Mexico at the time slowed to a trickle.
The Rettigs had difficulty meeting their financial obligation and in 2009 went back to the table with the Dmytriws. Amicable negotiations soon deteriorated with neither side being totally satisfied with the outcome. In fact, in 2016 there are still unsettled issues.
After five years (in 2014) however, a Tijuana judge divided up the property. He awarded the Dmytriws the hotel, banquet room, spa, original restaurant, and the La Fonda name, but it seems negotiations are still pending.
Gary’s La Fonda
The Rettigs continue to run what some refer to as La Fonda #2, now changed to Gary’s La Fonda.
Dimitri decided he didn’t really want to retire and after the 2014 court order he reopened and re-established his original La Fonda (#1). So now there are two.
I had heard correctly about the reopening and I was amazed when I walked in after almost a decade and a half. It was the same – exactly the same! It was hard to believe. The tables and umbrellas on the patio looked to have emerged from a time warp; the bar was identical, the dance area the same – even the fireplace was lit. I was amazed. It did not even appear to have undergone a partial remodel. I guess why mess with what was once a very successful restaurant?
The Dmytriws hired Francisco Naranjo Cruz as general manager. While he doesn’t have Dimitri’s flashy charm (who does?), he seemed very helpful and capable running the place -- except on weekends when Dimitri shows up to hold court.
La Fonda (#1) was a little hard to find as there are La Fonda signs all over the place. On the north side of the hotel is Gary’s La Fonda (#2), still a wonderful restaurant which offers great food, killer views, and entertainment.
Also, just next to that is yet another restaurant/B&B called Poco Cielo so it’s a busy area and always packed with cars.
But I came for Dimitri’s. Sitting on the #1 patio for an early fish dinner was an exercise in nostalgia. Even the large blackboard menus were set tableside, just like before. The menu was broad and the prices still reasonable. I didn’t see any dolphins that day but as I sat my beautiful self down I realized La Fonda might not get much argument using the designation “The Most Beautiful Place on the Coast.”
La Fonda (#1) Contact info:
Phone from U.S. 011-52-646-155-0872
Gary's La Fonda (#2) Contact
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.