James Gardner on Gitano's Bohemian Nomad-Meets-Fashion Vibe

A decade after launching in Tulum as a jungle-chic mezcal bar, Gitano has cultivated a lifestyle around its theatrical venues whose reach now extends to New York City and Miami. Surface sits down with the brand's grand poobah to take stock of Gitano's evolution and get the scoop on what comes next.

Gitano Island in New York City.

“I love disco balls,” James Gardner says. Anyone who’s stepped foot in a Gitano before will attest to the founder’s affection for the glittering orbs, a central design element in every one of his venues and somewhat of a spirit symbol embodying the groovy essence of the brand. 

Gardner’s love affair with Tulum, where he currently owns three clubby restaurants, first began in the 90s. Joined by his husband Andrew, the couple reveled in the pristine sands and rustic charm of the quaint Mexican haven. After a polymathic career that includes a consulting gig at Accenture, a stint at the formidable Goldman Sachs, and a foray into the tempestuous world of fashion working with blue-chip maisons, Gardner collated his disparate skillset and launched Gitano in 2013. 

From its inception as an off-the-beaten-track mezcal bar, Gitano has evolved into a stylish hub for the yuppie class and is one of the early stewards of Tulum’s rise as a global hotspot by treating guests as participants in a grand theatrical performance. (Some early celebrity patrons such as Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Orlando Bloom assisted with the nascent buzz.) More hospitality spaces have since followed: Gitano Beach and Meze in Tulum, Gitano Miami Beach, and Gitano Island in New York City.

After debuting this past year on Governors Island, the latter is gearing up for its sophomore season. A short ferry ride from the Financial District, the waterfront restaurant and beach lounge feels a world away from the Manhattan cacophony thanks to a lush Yucatan-esque palm tree jungle, Bedouin dining tent, open-fire kitchen, centerpiece lotus pond, beach cabanas, and postcard-worthy views of the cityscape across the harbor.

Executive chef Antonio Maldonado’s refresh of the menu includes new dishes such as black truffle mushroom sopes, Baja California kampachi with grilled avocado tostada, duck carnitas huarache, lubina in corn husk, and short rib birria. In addition, new summer programming will include everything from guided meditation and deep house yoga to Sunday drag brunch.

Below, Gardner tells us about Gitano’s decade-long evolution, the merging of fashion and hospitality, and the unlikely story behind Gitano Island.

A few dishes from Gitano Island's new menu.
Gitano Jungle in Tulum.

How did the concept of Gitano come about?

My partner Andrew and I first came down in the 90s when it was nothing but miles and miles of white sand and a few palapa-type places. The minute we set foot on the sand we were like, where are we? It blew our minds the flight from New York was only an hour longer than going to Miami, yet it was another world. Back then you’d have a lovely time and everything was done as soon as it got dark because there wasn’t really electricity, which was part of the charm.

Years later, the idea for Gitano was inspired by our experiences in St. Barts at this place Le Ti and our desire for a place to get dressed up and go for dinner in Tulum. We wanted to create an environment that combined the beauty and charm of Tulum with a more glamorous atmosphere because when you’re on holiday, you do want to show off a little bit. Gitano is Le Ti meets Galliano Dior runway show in a garden.

We called it a mescal bar and kitchen. But I quickly saw the importance of food to get good people coming and staying and coming back. So, we expanded the kitchen, grew the dining area, and made changes each season to surprise people. Eventually, we designed and built the jungle room, a substantial structure that looks like it’s been hidden in the jungle for a hundred years.

Gitano conjures images of palm trees and margaritas. What made you greenlight the expansion to New York City and the temporary space in Soho, Garden of Love? 

I thought it would be the last place we bring Gitano. The brand is very much beach and tropical. When I was presented with the opportunity in 2018, I’m like, what? No. Then I saw the lot and Drew and I used to live three doors down on Grand Street. I started sketching, found a coconut palm farm in Florida, and said okay we can do the project.

Gitano Beach.
James Gardner embodying the brand's lifestyle in his silk pajamas at Gitano Beach.

What’s the backstory behind the relocation to Governors Island? Were you concerned people might not come? 

We heard in March last year that we weren’t reopening in Soho. Initially, I wasn’t excited about Governors Island because I thought it was a long way. But I agreed to take the meeting with the Trust. It was a 10-minute Uber from my place in Soho and then a five-minute ferry ride. And you get off the ferry, you’re like oh my god, this is another world.

So we moved mountains and managed to open just by the end of June. It was a tough first few opening weeks, but by the end of the season, we were really in our flow with the food, service, and programming. We ended up hosting 54,000 people in 90 days.

Between choosing an empty cement lot in the middle of Soho, lifeless Governors Island, and even the vacant rooftop at Casa Faena in Miami, it seems like you love taking on projects that seem impossibly complicated. 

Ha, it’s a really good question because I don’t step back to look at what is making me tick. I’m incredibly driven. I like swinging big. I like working hard. I’ve always been motivated to try to do something different. I’m also fearless.

Are you thinking about opening new locations? Maybe a hotel? How do you approach expanding Gitano’s brand without losing its special feel?

I think of Gitano as bohemian nomads mixed with New York nightlife. I always look at what I want.  Not to be selfish or ego or anything. I think about what I want when I’m designing and I imagine myself sitting in the space. It’s important to maintain the authenticity of our brand rather than just entering markets for the sake of expansion. Our focus is on maximizing our impact in core places, rather than just trying to make more money. 

We’re most excited about [potentially] expanding into full hospitality. So people have said for years to us now that they love our design aesthetic. Love the concept. We’d love to stay with you. I would say that’s the biggest sort of growth area.
An aerial view of Gitano Island.
(Clockwise, from bottom left) The front bar at Meze. Gitano Miami's ground-floor restaurant. A tropical cocktail.

The Gitano experience is sensorial and has these elements of choreography and even fantasy. Is that the future of hospitality?

I believe there’s a whole convergence of brands and businesses trying to connect with consumers on various levels, whether it’s through fashion, experiences, or even food. People are now spending more on experiences and wanting elevated, delicious, but fun environments. We’ve tapped into the sweet spot between fine dining and casual, focusing on quality and sophisticated service without making it too formal. I want our guests to feel like they’re in their living room.

How do you see fashion and hospitality converging?

There is a convergence happening between fashion, hospitality, and other industries as they try to provide a more immersive experience for their customers. For example, fashion designers are opening their own restaurants or hotels, and vice versa. The idea is to create a lifestyle around the brand, where customers can immerse themselves in the experience, whether it’s through the clothes they wear, the food they eat, or the places they stay.

It’s the whole conversion. When I opened the first Gitano in 2013, I think people were probably like, what the hell is he doing? A bar in Tulum? But I knew it was a lifestyle. It was only a couple of years later that Ralph Lauren opened the Polo Bar. LVMH acquired Belmond. Christian Louboutin just opened a hotel in Portugal. Brands are trying to talk to the consumer, whether they are buying a dress to wear to dinner or serving the dinner.

Which is a good segue to the Gitano fashion line. What’s the inspiration behind it? 

We have a line called Souk, which stands for “a marketplace of exquisite goods and essentials for the modern nomad.” It includes items like embroidered Indian silk, Gitano t-shirts, and other products that reflect the culture and lifestyle of Tulum and Gitano. We plan to feature it more prominently during the reopening of our New York location.

Gitano Beach.
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