It’s Friday night at Baja Calypso and there’s a calm but buzzing energy in the restaurant, and a soft glow from the Moroccan lanterns hanging from the ceiling and candles perched in tabletop wine bottles.
Other than some quiet conversation, 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.
The man with the guitar is Joaquin McWhinney, known as Quino – one of the most recognized voices in reggae music. Quino has toured more than 30 countries and sold over two million albums as lead singer for the group Big Mountain. In 1994 Big Mountain released a reggae version of Peter Frampton’s “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.
From Morocco to K38
The story of how an accomplished musician like Quino ended up playing here at a restaurant at K38, a well-known surf spot, 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 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 before coming to the U.S. at the age of 29. He settled in Leucadia, which at the time was a small surf community. It was in Leucadia that Gilles would open his own Calypso restaurant in 1995. For nearly two decades Gilles and Calypso were a fixture in Leucadia.
“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 the restaurant but it wasn’t the same. Calypso closed its 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 K38 surf spot that he'd open up as Baja Calypso a few months later.
Remnants of the old Leucadia Calypso are around. Some of the colorful décor followed. Faded articles hang on the wall describing how Gilles had “brought the funk to Leucadia” with the old Calypso. Like 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 ocean views and 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 was running behind schedule. He needed work. “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?”
Inside the restaurant
The indoor space at Baja Calypso is open to the outdoors with open doors and windows that look out onto the Pacific. Décor is colorful with funky paintings of musicians, wooden surfboards, 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 waves of K38.
The food at Calypso is a mix of Baja cuisine and Gilles’ French and Moroccan background. The results are impressive, with a menu including escargot, homemade hummus, ceviches, and crab and lobster ravioli. Baja Calypso has also been voted best breakfast in Rosarito.
“It's all about senses – all of them – sight, taste, sound. That’s the key to a successful restaurant," says Gilles.
Gilles spends his time going from table to table, checking on the food and making sure everyone's enjoying their time. He’s the perfect host. As much as he's synonymous with Baja Calypso, Quino has become so as well.
Quino plays at Baja Calypso on a regular basis and packs a full house. He sings in both English and Spanish, and in between songs he talks with the crowd. “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 finish each other’s sentences.
Around midnight the crowd is thinning, as patrons head home to sleep off their tequila and cerveza buzz. Quino is still crooning away, playing 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 the duo bringing the funk to Baja.