It’s Friday night at Baja Calypso and there’s a calm but buzzing energy pulsating through the restaurant. The soft glow of warm light comes from colorful Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the candles perched in wine bottles on the tabletops. There’s some quiet conversation, but for the most part, the crowd hangs on the music coming from one man in the corner who sings along with his guitar. His voice is raw and emotive. His reggae music has the crowd entranced.
The man with the guitar is Joaquin McWhinney, known as Quino, and he has one of the most-recognized voices in reggae music. Quino has toured hundreds of cities in more than 30 countries and sold more than two million albums and six million singles as lead singer for the group Big Mountain. In 1994 Big Mountain released a reggae version of Peter Frampton’s song “Baby I Love Your Way.” The song reached the U.S. Top 40, and over the course of the past two decades has continued to be the most-played, non-current hit song on radio worldwide.
The story of how an accomplished musician like Quino ended up playing here at restaurant at K38 is a typically serendipitous Baja story.
The story starts with the owner of Baja Calypso, Gilles Knafo. Gilles was born in Casablanca, Morocco where his dad had a very popular restaurant named Calypso. Because his dad was a restaurateur, Gilles grew up in the kitchen. “I have a love for food. For me, it’s like a religion.”
Gilles lived in Spain and then France where he spent most of his formative years in Paris. When he was 29, he came to the U.S. He settled in Leucadia, California, which at the time was a small surf community that no one took much interest in.
It was in Leucadia that Gilles found an old wooden building that had been constructed in 1908 that would become the home of his own restaurant named Calypso. On December 7, 1995, Calypso first opened its doors. The restaurant featured live music, great food and Gilles’ personal touch.
For nearly two decades Gilles and Calypso were a fixture in Leucadia. Gilles was there all the time, engaging with his customers and creating the full Calypso experience. “I threw a party for hundreds of people every night for 20 years,” says Gilles. “I brought the funk to Leucadia.”
In 2009 there was a fire and Calypso burned down. After a bit of hardship, Gilles eventually rebuilt Calypso and reopened in 2011. But it wasn’t the same. “The soul of Calypso burned down with the fire.” He closed his doors for good on New Years Eve, 2013.
It was when Gilles was on a vacation in Baja California that he saw a vacant space near the famous surf spot, K38 that would eventually become Baja Calypso. Gilles had to build out nearly everything in the space – the kitchen, the outside palapa area, and the bar. He opened up Baja Calypso in April 2014. Remnants of the old Leucadia Calypso are around. Some décor followed – the Moroccan lantern and colorful, funky artwork. Faded articles hang on the wall about how Gilles had “brought the Funk to Leucadia” with the old Calypso. Like a version of its former self, Baja Calypso is another vivid and funky space in a small surf community. But this time, Calypso finds itself south of the border with epic views of the ocean and a lot of Baja soul. Which brings us back to Quino and his music.
On a Sunday afternoon a few months after Gilles opened Baja Calypso, a man showed up at the restaurant with a guitar and started playing music out on the back patio. “I was upstairs taking a nap with my wife and kids and I thought – who is this guy waking me up?” says Gilles.
The man with the guitar was Quino. He was living in Ensenada and at the time had taken a whole year off of work. “Everything was on a backspin.” Big Mountain was supposed to have come out with an album the year before, but had been behind schedule. He needed work. “So I googled live music in Rosarito and Calypso popped up. So I hopped on the bus with my guitar.”
“I was lucky enough that he did it here” says Gilles. “People recognize him. He’s a legend.” Gilles and Quino immediately worked out a deal for Quino to play live music at Calypso on a regular basis.
“It was a match made in heaven. Just look at this place,” says Quino gesturing toward the views of the ocean. “Who would want to play anywhere else?”
The space at Baja Calypso is truly unique. The indoor area is still very open to the outdoors with open doors and windows that look out onto the Pacific. The décor inside is colorful and comfortable with funky paintings of musicians, wooden surfboards as decoration and Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceilings. Out the back door, the restaurant opens up to a huge patio area. Succulents lead down to a giant palapa with another bar area, pool table, couches, tables and chairs and a bar with seats looking right out onto the expansive ocean and the famous waves of K38.
The food at Calypso is on par with the agreeable setting and atmosphere. The menu offers escargot, homemade hummus, lobster bisque and ceviches to start. Crab and lobster ravioli, coq au vin, seafood linguini and duck a l’orange are among the extensive choices for entrees. Creme brulee and tarte tartin to finish for dessert. It’s a mix of the Baja California region, and Gilles’ French and Moroccan background. The result is exquisite. Baja Calypso has also been voted the best breakfast in all of Rosarito.
“It’s all about senses – all of them – sight, taste, sound. That’s the key to a successful restaurant. All of your senses should be aware of what’s going on” says Gilles.
Gilles brings the same genuine attitude and work ethic from the Leucadia Calypso to Baja Calypso. He spends his time going around talking to people, checking on the food and making sure that customers are enjoying their time. He’s the perfect host. Everyone who has been to his restaurant feels like they have a personal connection with him. And as much as Gilles is synonymous with Baja Calypso, Quino has become so as well.
Quino plays at Baja Calypso on a regular basis and the nights that he plays, he packs a full house. He never disappoints. He sings in both English and in Spanish and in between songs he talks with customers and interacts with the crowd. A night at Calypso with Quino is one of the best nights out in northern Baja.
“You have no idea how much I love this man” says Gilles. “This guy means so much to me.” The feeling is clearly mutual. The connection and admiration between Quino and Gilles is palatable. They exchange information with a knowing glance. They finish each other’s sentences.
“Every once in a while you find yourself in a place that makes you feel comfortable. For me, Baja Calypso is one of those places where you can breathe a breath of fresh air. A place you feel relaxed.” Says Quino. And that attitude and feeling translates over to the patrons who visit Calypso as well.
Around midnight, the crowds are thinning with patrons heading home to sleep off their tequila and cerveza buzz. Quino is still crooning away informally – playing some requests and talking with the customers who are left. Suddenly Gilles starts to set up a keyboard. With the unexpected skills of a trained pianist, he accompanies Quino on a bluesy rendition of “Kansas City.” The crowd is thrilled. The night is officially complete with a duet from the duo now bringing the funk to Baja.
K38, free road
Open 8am – 10pm, every day