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Visit the ancient clifftop hotel named after Queen Calafia

I’m full, not the gull

Pint of beer on bar’s balustrade, above the Pacific.
Pint of beer on bar’s balustrade, above the Pacific.

Oh no!

“Rosy! Rápido, por favor!”

Rosy whips around. She makes a wild grab at the gull as he’s about fly over the cliff with my Bistro Burger. The wooden rail keeps her from launching herself over the cliff. The gull drops the burger neatly on the plate.

Man! This is the second time a bird has swooped in on my burger. First was when a dozen squawking gulls got away with my en-tire burger outside the Walking On Water Cafe out on the OB pier. Just now, for the sequel, we’re 22 miles south of the border in Baja. I finally made it here by way of pick-up taxis to this ancient clifftop hotel, the Calafia, named after Queen Calafia, the mythical Moorish Queen who ruled the all-woman domain of California. The place is faded but famous, a destination where movie stars would come and dance Sunday afternoons (like today) on dance floors above the crashing waves. It’s also the spot where the Franciscan and Dominican and Jesuit missionaries duked it out for dominance of both Californias 300 years ago. Back then, the Franciscans won. But I’ve been worrying that this time, the pandemic may have won. Also that I might not get any food, this far out from Rosarito.

Juan Carlos: 34 years keeping Calafia going. Was here in glory days.

But it looks like I needn’t have worried. In this most unlikely spot, among a bunch of replica California Mission churches, and overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean, 35 klicks south of Tijuana, I spot an unlikely sign: “Craft Brewery and Kitchen.” Arrows point you into a building’s passage. It feels more like a museum, with ancient photos and historic declarations of independence (from Spain!) and pottery and actual giant fossil shells from, uh, 91 million years ago. Found right here.

Then you turn right and find yourself in a whack! modern bistro that looks out over this incredible panorama of the Pacific Ocean. “Welcome. Bienvenidos,” says a guy behind the bar. Juan Carlos. I plop onto a stool. It’s a bit disorienting. There’s this long counter, a small balcony, and then…woah! Nothingness, till your eyes climb down to the wild blue yonder of the ocean below.

Meanwhile, beer’s up and on draft right here. Tecate. 90 pesos (about $4.50) for a pint. Rosy, Juan Carlos’s offsider, insists on bringing it out to the balcony for me. She sets it on the wooden railing. Man. The ocean reflects golden through it. I take a slurp. Aah. One of my most delicious slurps ever. Through the glass, I notice a gull sitting on the roof tiles. I think of OB pier. “Be careful,” I tell myself.

My Bistro Burger and fries, before gull strike.

A couple sits drinking wine, Sergio and Liz. “We just happened upon this place on our way back from Ensenada. We’d never heard of it,” Sergio says. Hmm. Check the menu. It only does lunch. And my biggest surprise (and slight disappointment): it’s 100 percent gringo fare. Or, more exactly, craft beer-type pub food. Pizzas, burgers, wings, shrimp.

“We’re limited since Covid,” says Kevin the manager. “We opened two weeks ago. We will be doing more.” Which is fine. I know this used to be the go-to place for the in-crowd of its day. Me, I’m just thrilled to see it’s open for business. Pizzas look like they’re a good price. The pepperoni is $10, the five-cheese is $12, the Margherita, $10. But I’m looking at two sliders (“served with cheddar cheese and caramelized onions and fries”), which go for $8. Battered shrimp in buffalo sauce is $12. Wings (bone-in or boneless), are $8 for a half-pound, $14 per lb. Different burgers are each $12. “All-American,” “Bistro,” “Black and Blue,“ “Smoke House,” and the “Baja,” which has sliced jalapenos and a chipotle cream sauce.

Rosy, hero of the day. She saved burger from gull attack.

“I think the best one is the Bistro,” says Rosy. “It has goat cheese, as well as bacon, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions.” I do end up going for that. Place is starting to fill with families and couples on a Sunday outing. I follow Rosy outside. Have to say, my burger is a towering wonder. It has the onion rings on top, a ton of sauce, and then a generous patty.

So I am just about to stretch my hands to grasp it when, out of the corner of my eye, I see the blur of a lone gull swooping in like a falcon, beak stretched. This is when I yell to Rosy. She grabs. The burger drops, miraculously, back on the plate, and not over the edge to the rocks below.

Sergio and Liz: chance visitors.

We kinda pick it up, dust it off, squeeze the ooze back in. “Not a problem,” I say. “He didn’t get a peck in. I can eat it.” And the fact is, it’s a pretty darned good burger. Goat cheese helps give it a zesty twang beyond the buffalo gunge.

“Gulls? Yes, sometimes a problem,” says Juan Carlos. He came out when he heard the fuss. Turns out, he has been working here for 34 years. “Back in the day, this was where everybody came. The dance floors down by the ocean were crowded with 400, 500 people on the weekends. It was crazy and beautiful.” There’s a wistfulness in his eyes. And I can see why. Truth to tell, a lot of the cliffside levels are closed off. The rest looks a little crumbly when you’re close up, like it could do with some angel to pour a few million into it, like, now.

But I come away full, and full of wonder. Also, with one eye on the gulls.

  • The Place: Hotel Calafia/Craft Brewery & Kitchen, Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada KM 35.5, Villa San Pedro, 22710 Rosarito, Baja California (not far south of Rosarito), +52 661 613-2308
  • Hours: 12pm-8pm daily
  • Prices: Two Beachside sliders (beef, cheese, onions, fries), $8; buffalo shrimp, $12; rockin’ wings, $8 half pound, $14 per lb; Bistro Burger (goat cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms), $12; Black and Blue (black pepper crusted angus beef, blue cheese, bacon, caramelized onions), $12; Baja (jack cheese, avo, jalapeños, chipotle cream sauce), $12; wood-fired pizzas include pepperoni, $10; Cinque Formaggio, $12; Margherita, $10
  • Buses: Take yellow public taxis from TJ to Rosarito, taxi to K35.5 (ie 35.5km south of Tijuana)
  • Security: travel by day, check general situation
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Pint of beer on bar’s balustrade, above the Pacific.
Pint of beer on bar’s balustrade, above the Pacific.

Oh no!

“Rosy! Rápido, por favor!”

Rosy whips around. She makes a wild grab at the gull as he’s about fly over the cliff with my Bistro Burger. The wooden rail keeps her from launching herself over the cliff. The gull drops the burger neatly on the plate.

Man! This is the second time a bird has swooped in on my burger. First was when a dozen squawking gulls got away with my en-tire burger outside the Walking On Water Cafe out on the OB pier. Just now, for the sequel, we’re 22 miles south of the border in Baja. I finally made it here by way of pick-up taxis to this ancient clifftop hotel, the Calafia, named after Queen Calafia, the mythical Moorish Queen who ruled the all-woman domain of California. The place is faded but famous, a destination where movie stars would come and dance Sunday afternoons (like today) on dance floors above the crashing waves. It’s also the spot where the Franciscan and Dominican and Jesuit missionaries duked it out for dominance of both Californias 300 years ago. Back then, the Franciscans won. But I’ve been worrying that this time, the pandemic may have won. Also that I might not get any food, this far out from Rosarito.

Juan Carlos: 34 years keeping Calafia going. Was here in glory days.

But it looks like I needn’t have worried. In this most unlikely spot, among a bunch of replica California Mission churches, and overlooking the mighty Pacific Ocean, 35 klicks south of Tijuana, I spot an unlikely sign: “Craft Brewery and Kitchen.” Arrows point you into a building’s passage. It feels more like a museum, with ancient photos and historic declarations of independence (from Spain!) and pottery and actual giant fossil shells from, uh, 91 million years ago. Found right here.

Then you turn right and find yourself in a whack! modern bistro that looks out over this incredible panorama of the Pacific Ocean. “Welcome. Bienvenidos,” says a guy behind the bar. Juan Carlos. I plop onto a stool. It’s a bit disorienting. There’s this long counter, a small balcony, and then…woah! Nothingness, till your eyes climb down to the wild blue yonder of the ocean below.

Meanwhile, beer’s up and on draft right here. Tecate. 90 pesos (about $4.50) for a pint. Rosy, Juan Carlos’s offsider, insists on bringing it out to the balcony for me. She sets it on the wooden railing. Man. The ocean reflects golden through it. I take a slurp. Aah. One of my most delicious slurps ever. Through the glass, I notice a gull sitting on the roof tiles. I think of OB pier. “Be careful,” I tell myself.

My Bistro Burger and fries, before gull strike.

A couple sits drinking wine, Sergio and Liz. “We just happened upon this place on our way back from Ensenada. We’d never heard of it,” Sergio says. Hmm. Check the menu. It only does lunch. And my biggest surprise (and slight disappointment): it’s 100 percent gringo fare. Or, more exactly, craft beer-type pub food. Pizzas, burgers, wings, shrimp.

“We’re limited since Covid,” says Kevin the manager. “We opened two weeks ago. We will be doing more.” Which is fine. I know this used to be the go-to place for the in-crowd of its day. Me, I’m just thrilled to see it’s open for business. Pizzas look like they’re a good price. The pepperoni is $10, the five-cheese is $12, the Margherita, $10. But I’m looking at two sliders (“served with cheddar cheese and caramelized onions and fries”), which go for $8. Battered shrimp in buffalo sauce is $12. Wings (bone-in or boneless), are $8 for a half-pound, $14 per lb. Different burgers are each $12. “All-American,” “Bistro,” “Black and Blue,“ “Smoke House,” and the “Baja,” which has sliced jalapenos and a chipotle cream sauce.

Rosy, hero of the day. She saved burger from gull attack.

“I think the best one is the Bistro,” says Rosy. “It has goat cheese, as well as bacon, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions.” I do end up going for that. Place is starting to fill with families and couples on a Sunday outing. I follow Rosy outside. Have to say, my burger is a towering wonder. It has the onion rings on top, a ton of sauce, and then a generous patty.

So I am just about to stretch my hands to grasp it when, out of the corner of my eye, I see the blur of a lone gull swooping in like a falcon, beak stretched. This is when I yell to Rosy. She grabs. The burger drops, miraculously, back on the plate, and not over the edge to the rocks below.

Sergio and Liz: chance visitors.

We kinda pick it up, dust it off, squeeze the ooze back in. “Not a problem,” I say. “He didn’t get a peck in. I can eat it.” And the fact is, it’s a pretty darned good burger. Goat cheese helps give it a zesty twang beyond the buffalo gunge.

“Gulls? Yes, sometimes a problem,” says Juan Carlos. He came out when he heard the fuss. Turns out, he has been working here for 34 years. “Back in the day, this was where everybody came. The dance floors down by the ocean were crowded with 400, 500 people on the weekends. It was crazy and beautiful.” There’s a wistfulness in his eyes. And I can see why. Truth to tell, a lot of the cliffside levels are closed off. The rest looks a little crumbly when you’re close up, like it could do with some angel to pour a few million into it, like, now.

But I come away full, and full of wonder. Also, with one eye on the gulls.

  • The Place: Hotel Calafia/Craft Brewery & Kitchen, Carretera Libre Tijuana-Ensenada KM 35.5, Villa San Pedro, 22710 Rosarito, Baja California (not far south of Rosarito), +52 661 613-2308
  • Hours: 12pm-8pm daily
  • Prices: Two Beachside sliders (beef, cheese, onions, fries), $8; buffalo shrimp, $12; rockin’ wings, $8 half pound, $14 per lb; Bistro Burger (goat cheese, bacon, caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms), $12; Black and Blue (black pepper crusted angus beef, blue cheese, bacon, caramelized onions), $12; Baja (jack cheese, avo, jalapeños, chipotle cream sauce), $12; wood-fired pizzas include pepperoni, $10; Cinque Formaggio, $12; Margherita, $10
  • Buses: Take yellow public taxis from TJ to Rosarito, taxi to K35.5 (ie 35.5km south of Tijuana)
  • Security: travel by day, check general situation
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