How Tulum Became Mexico’s Hottest Party Destination
James Gardner, founder of the Gitano empire, dishes on the perennially hip Mexican beach town.
James Gardner is a remarkably interesting and accomplished man, who, perhaps more than any other individual, has helped put Tulum, Mexico on the map as one of the coolest and most desirable destinations on the planet.
A lifelong innovator and entrepreneur, the preternaturally stylish, UK-born Gardner started his career in London before moving to New York City, where he became a successful Wall Street algorithmic-trading leader; and then moved on to build one the first and digital and e-commerce businesses taking major fashion and luxury brands online.
After nine years building the business to 400 employees across NYC, London, and Milan, he decided to “take his career in an entirely new direction and entered the luxury hospitality space,” and at the end of 2013 moved to Tulum, his home away from home, with longtime partner Andrew Cramer.
Together they opened Gitano Tulum, where James saw an opportunity to “look at hospitality differently, and through a fashion lens.” This inspired the creation of Grupo Gitano, founded in 2017, which has grown exponentially in the last few years.
Gitano now has five properties across Mexico and the U.S.A., including Gitano Tulum, Gitano Beach, Meze Tulum and Gitano Miami Beach, with more on the way. Here Gardner gives the lowdown on his haute-bohemian, luxury hospitality empire:
What first attracted you to Tulum? When did you first go there, and what inspired you to open a restaurant?
“I was first introduced to Tulum by insiders in the fashion industry over 20 years ago when it was Mexico’s best-kept secret, a chic place by those in the know. Of course, we fell in love with the incredible natural beauty, but also with the direct flight to [nearby] Cancun from NYC. It feels a very similar distance to Miami but a whole other world.”
“While it was beautiful, with miles of white sand beaches, it didn’t have much else in terms of hotels, food, beverage, and entertainment. When we were in St Barths or other destinations, we would often wish Tulum just had somewhere to get dressed up for dinner. Then, the universe opened the door, and we created Gitano to fill that desire!”
What was your original concept for Gitano and how has it evolved since?
“Initially, Gitano was a small mezcal bar with a tiny kitchen and a very small menu of snacks. But my vision from the beginning was to build a dramatic and glamorous dinner and dancing destination in the jungle of Tulum, and from this platform we decided to create a global brand, more of a lifestyle and culture brand than just a restaurant.”
He adds, “And I do believe we have achieved this. The vision remains true and strong—looking at hospitality through a fashion lens if you like, keeping it chic and fun, and never taking ourselves too seriously. “
What is your approach to hospitality, and your thoughts on blending restaurants with nightclubs?
“I try to approach everything that I do with a beginner’s mind, and in this case, it was a literal beginner’s mind, in that I had no hospitality experience—beyond my own extensive and very fun life having eaten at all the best restaurants and attended the hottest fashion shows, parties, and clubs in NYC, London, Paris and, Milan over the years. I also like to do things differently and do things that I know I would like, believing there are many other likeminded people out there.”
“And this formula has worked. I had a very clear vision from the beginning of dinner and dancing, integrating the two seamlessly, inspired by the glamorous supper clubs of old—meets a fabulous party in Ibiza or Mykonos.”
“I remember very early on I was having dinner with a famous NYC Chef at Gitano, and he told me he didn’t think you can blend restaurants and nightlife. Well, I believe we have shown that you absolutely can and people love it!”
How would you describe your customers in Tulum? Has the profile of visitors changed over the years?
“Tulum became known for the ‘Gypset’—well-educated, creative, curious, high-income, high-net-worth, global travelers that it attracted in the early years of Gitano. Assouline published Julia Chaplin’s [expanded] Tulum Gypset book that features Gitano just a couple of years ago.”
“Development in Tulum has exploded over the last few years”—he notes an airport is being built there—”and with that it has become more widely known and therefore much more commercial. Chic people absolutely still come but the audience overall is much more diverse, and we think diversity is a great thing at Gitano!”
How did you decide on the menus for all locations?
“Our menus have really evolved quite beautifully and organically over the years. We started off serving snacks from a very small kitchen back in 2013-14, and then we collaborated with Noma alum Mad Refslund in 2017 when Noma did a pop-up in Tulum.”
“In 2019 we hired our Executive Chef Antonio Maldonaldo from Puebla in Mexico to open our Gitano Miami property, and today I would say we deliver some of the best modern Mexican food in the world at our locations in Tulum, Miami Beach, and New York City.”
What future plans do you have for the Gitano brand?
“Gitano Mexico Citry! We partnered with an operator in Mexico City for what was a very successful pop-up during Zona Maco 2022. We are now working with them to completely redesign and rebuild the property to open officially later this year.”
“Casa Gitano! We are working on launching our full hospitality offering on the beach in Tulum including hotel rooms, and will be able to share more on this at a later date. Our guests have long asked to stay with us and we think this will be a big success. We are also looking forward to expanding to other locations from L.A. to Dubai. But again it’s too early to share more on this.”
“Gitano Island! Summer is coming in NYC and we are getting ready to open what I believe is our most dramatic and spectacular property to date, a 27,000-sq.-ft. waterfront restaurant and beach lounge on Governors Island.
It is quite literally an escape from NYC with just a five-minute boat ride from downtown. The ferry terminal is inside the gorgeous Battery Maritime building which also houses Casa Cirpiani. We served 54,000 guests last summer in a truncated season, we didn’t open until July, and we expect that number to double this year.”