While sprawled across a wooden chaise and glancing up at the dozens of towering palm trees, a waiter comes by to ask if you’d like a second glass of the mezcal and rosemary-infused margarita. As you nod your head “yes” and scoop another guacamole-topped chip into your mouth, you have to remind yourself that you’re not on one of Tulum, Mexico’s sunny, sandy beaches but are instead in dark, frigid New York City.
Welcome to the Gitano Jungle Room, a newly opened restaurant, bar and lounge spread across two floors of the James Hotel in SoHo.
There are essentially two venues within Gitano: the Jungle Bar upstairs and the Jungle Room below. While the latter serves as a more traditional eatery to the bar’s loungey vibes, founder James Gardner says, “at the end of the day, it’s up to our customers how they want to use the spaces.”
Both levels of the Jungle Room are filled to the brim with bamboo furniture and deliciously green palm trees, and make for the ultimate tropical dancing getaway, but the new space is more than that. “Gitano is fun and sexy, sure,” says Gardner, “but we also have great food and excellent service.”
Working with globally acclaimed chefs Mads Refslund and Yvon Lemoine to develop a Mexico-meets-New-York menu, the Jungle Room offers seasonal, fresh and flavorful fare. The ceviche verde made with fluke and lychee, the mole-topped pot-roasted cauliflower, and the lamb ribs are particular crowd-pleasers.
And what trip to Mexico would be complete without some delicious signature cocktails? The Gitano margarita offers a modern update to the classic drink, made this time with mezcal, lime and rosemary. The Golden God combines mezcal, passion fruit, chartreuse, lemon and 2019’s hottest ingredient, CBD oil, and the Jungle Room even has a warm drink for when the realities of 20-degree weather and snow set in. The Double Hot Chocolate is a blend of chipotle-infused mezcal and coconut hot chocolate topped with black lava salt.
The Gitano story
The year-round Gitano follows the popular but short-lived Gitano Jungle Garden pop-up in SoHo last summer. But Gitano’s story doesn’t start in Manhattan.
Grupo Gitano’s first location, which opened in 2013, is in the increasingly trendy Tulum, where its seasonal Mexican cooking and glistening disco balls are nestled between ocean and forest.
Gardner was born and raised in the U.K. and moved to New York around 20 years ago for a job with Goldman Sachs. While working on Wall Street, he became friends with the city’s fashion set and in 2004, or in the “B.I. (Before Instagram) Age,” as he puts it, he founded a digital fashion agency that helped brands enter the world of e-commerce. Gardner and his longtime partner, Andrew Cramer, had vacationed in Tulum for years, and after leaving his company in 2013, the couple travelled south once again for a getaway. It was then that they both thought to start a business there and began exploring various opportunities.
Although Tulum had always attracted, as Gardner says, “the fashion crowd, the hippies and the gays,” the Mexican beach town lacked a restaurant or bar where visitors could go all dressed up “and show off their tans.” Despite their lack of restaurant experience, with the exception of Cramer’s tenure at New York’s Bouley, the duo had a vision of “dinner and dancing,” and Gitano was born.
“We wanted Gitano to be the place to see and be seen,” Gardner says. “It doesn’t necessarily follow all the rules.”
Bringing the beach to the city
One year ago this month, Gardner received a call from an old friend, who encouraged him to open Gitano’s second home (vacation home, if you will) in New York.
“New York is my home,” says Gardner, but with thoughts to open in the Bahamas and other tropical destinations, “it was probably the last place I would have wanted to open my new next location.”
But after touring a perspective location, a massive dirt lot on Varick Street, just a couple of blocks from Gardner’s former 64 Grand St. residence, the idea grew on him.
Gardner and his team developed plans for the 24,000-square foot, 400-person restaurant and bar that would soon be erected on the SoHo lot and began building the space back in Tulum. In April, with the Jungle Garden’s summer opening just around the corner, its entire design was loaded onto two trucks and made its way across the Texas border and up to New York.
The Jungle Garden was a huge hit from its start in June, its tropical vibes scoring big with Instagram influencers and Gitano’s existing jet-set clientele excited to have a location closer to home. And yet, just as the New York summer sun reached its zenith in July, the Jungle Garden hit some turbulence.
All New York City restaurants and bars must be connected to city water and sewage, a Department of Health rule that provided the entirely outdoor Gitano with a slight challenge. “It was honestly the hardest part of the whole project,” says Gardner.
Gitano provided portable toilets and “got New York state water, which is fine to drink but not New York City-approved," he says. The DOH shut Gitano down for a few days after it assessed multiple violations.
Gardner hired 30 workers to build the water and sewage connections. Just two days later, the Health Department returned, and Gitano soon opened its doors once again.
The restaurant remained a hot spot even after its temporary closure, with Vogue editor Hamish Bowles and designer Jeremy Scott attending its re-opening, but Gitano was shut down by the DOH for a second time in August. This time, the Health Department cited improper refrigeration, whose compressors, Gardner says, had failed as a result of the near-100-degree temperatures.
Despite a rocky summer, though, the Jungle Garden returned to its initial success through its planned closing in October. “Fundamentally, people like Tulum, and they like the concept,” says Gardner, noting that the outdoor restaurant will return to the SoHo lot in May.
A permanent home at the James
At the beginning of last summer, as the Jungle Garden was getting ready to open, The James Hotel reached out to Gardner and asked him “how’d you like to bring Gitano across the street?” As the outdoor restaurant was packing up its things at the end of the summer season, it made a deal with the nearby hotel to create a permanent, year-round Gitano inside its bottom two floors. Just two months later, the Gitano Jungle Room opened to the public.
“We’re doing something different,” says Gardner, “which can be controversial, but with the love and support of our friends and customers, we couldn’t be more excited about the new Jungle Room.”