Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Spring/Summer 2008 issue.

Fervor for food, family and their special locations on the Riviera Nayarit links eight extraordinary and diverse restaurateurs who have each established unique and beloved eateries. Hailing from as far as New Zealand and as close as Vallarta, each brings distinctive experience and imparts an individual flavor, not just to the fare but to the entire dining experience.

Café del Mar - San "Pancho"

“My mother was a great adventurer,” explains Amandine Darmstaedter, who arrived in Mexico on a sailboat from Belgium when she was 10. Settling in Mexico City, Amandine opened a Malaysian restaurant in a trendy area, planning to stay put. But on a visit to a friend in Vallarta, she fell in love with the sea. She had planned to buy a car, but instead purchased a plot on a hillside in San Pancho. And on one vacation from big city bustle, she simply decided to remain, an adventurer herself now.

She opened Café del Mar in a rented shack in 2002, knowing the dwelling was for sale. Luckily, a patron enjoyed the restaurant so tremendously he bought the place and became her business partner. Two years later, they opened Mar Plata across town, decidedly more elegant than the charmingly rustic café. Recently, she added La Perla del Mar for breakfast and lunch on the Malecon in San Pancho.

“I couldn’t do all this without my family,” she stresses. Brother Bruno manages Mar Plata and helps with La Perla, while their uncle acts as financial manager, and her brother-in-law runs El Malayo in Mexico City. Amandine emphasizes that, although the restaurants go on changing and growing, she is here in San Pancho to stay. Café del Mar Calle China 9 • San Pancho • Tel. (311) 258-4251

Don Pedro’s - Sayulita

When Damien Porter’s father, Peter (Pedro in Spanish), decided to buy land in Mexico, the family journeyed from Careyes up to San Blas, deciding in 1989 on a beachside parcel in Sayulita with great surfing just steps away. The plan was to build a home, but it became a restaurant, instead – the first in the then sleepy town. And so Don Pedro’s, now in its 14th season, fulfilled the vision of bringing a world-class restaurant to a delightful Mexican village.

Damien came to Sayulita in 1992 with his cousin Nicholas Parrillo, co-owner and chef at Don Pedro’s, to follow the family dream – and to surf. These days, however, there’s no time for surfing! Damien is proud of their contributions to Sayulita, like building a small Malecon, and notes that development in the area has exploded – great for business, but bringing its own problems, which he helps solve as part of a local environmental committee.

Damien declares he’s in Sayulita to stay, admitting that his own vision includes a smaller place nearby, where he can develop more custom menus. But, he points out, it’s important to have a reliable core group of help – people like those who have been at Don Pedro’s a decade and are part of the family. Don Pedro’s Marlin 2 • Sayulita • Tel. (329) 291-3153 & 291-3090

Frascati - La Cruz de Huanacaxtle

Philippe Defayes had already established 10 successful restaurants – several of the same name – in Leon, Irapuato, Querétaro and Guanajuato before bestowing Frascati on La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. Managed by his son, Sebastian Defayes, the popular restaurant appears to be just one in a La Cruz empire the family plans to create.

Originally from Switzerland, Philippe came to Mexico seeking opportunity and sunshine. Sebastian, born in Mexico but raised in Europe, returned to Mexico to add Spanish to his French and English and spend time with his father. After launching the restaurant in Guanajuato, he came to La Cruz in 2005 for the newest Frascati in the chain and decided to stay.

The family has also opened a taquería on the main square, a decidedly different enterprise. Sebastian explains that they want to have the people from the town coming to their restaurants – to have something to off er everyone because “it’s the local people who keep you going.” In fact, a third restaurant in the town is being constructed. Sebastian says he would opt for Argentine style, but his father is thinking seafood. He is also thinking of a small bar – a place for young people, where a guy can take a girl – as well as a Normandy-French bistro in the future. “I have a lot to learn, but you learn fast from my father,” he concludes. Frascati Langosta 10 & Coral • La Cruz • Tel. (329) 29-6185

Hidden Paradise - La Cruz de Huanacaxtle

Idalia Cruz sits surrounded by daughters and grandchildren on the patio of their home while, on the terrace below, the restaurant she runs with husband Esteban Mariscal bustles with early diners served by her sons. Indeed, almost everyone connected with the enterprise is family, from the boat captain in San Blas who supplies the restaurant with succulent shrimp to the sister who handles the office work.

Th e couple began with the first beachside restaurant in Mismaloya more than 25 years ago, but the area grew too busy for them, so they moved to Playa de Pontoque on the pristine Punta de Mita coast, where they lived and worked for 12 years, the only establishment on a beautiful, tranquil beach until development intruded again.

“We had a small conflict with the government,” Idalia states calmly, “And we were sent to jail because we resisted giving up our land and house.” Eventually Costa Banderas bought their land and gave the family a beachfront hectare in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, where Hidden Paradise has been serving its special shrimp and fi sh dishes, along with unique mango margaritas, for a dozen years.

Once isolated outside the town and then devastated by Hurricane Kenna in 2002, business is brisk now, as building in the area explodes. But there are no plans to move this time. The family is just happy everyone has work. Hidden Paradise Km 1.1 Carr. Punta de Mita • La Cruz • Tel (322) 157-9578

Margaritas - El Anclote / Punta de Mita

Hector Lopez has lived restaurants almost since he was born in Puerto Vallarta in 1968. Starting at 17 as a waiter at El Dorado in Old Town, where his father also worked, he became capitán de meseros at Las Palomas, another traditional Vallarta eatery, by the time he was 20. Then in 1989, his parents borrowed the name “El Dorado,” with the blessing of the Wulff family, and opened one of the first restaurants in El Anclote. Hector worked there, along with his brothers and sisters, until he started at The Four Seasons in Punta Mita, where he became room service manager.

Three years ago, Hector signed a six-year lease on a small, run-down shack and decrepit restaurant on the beach, just a few doors down from the family business. Naming it Margaritas, in honor of the drink, he’s turned it into a popular gathering place with a reputation for great ribs and an array of seafood. His wife, daughter of restaurant owners, helps out on Sundays. “That’s family day,” explains Hector. “Thursday we always close to play soccer.”

Anticipating the end of his rental, Hector has already purchased ocean-view property in the Punta Mita area for a new place. He says there will still be a great terrace from which to view the bay and sip margaritas. Margaritas Playa El Anclote 140 • Punta Mita • Tel. (329) 291-5107

Mark’s Bar & Grill - Bucerias

It wasn’t until after their first New Year’s Eve party that there was money to purchase a telephone line – only the third one in Bucerias – according to Mark McMahon and chef Jan Benton, the husband and wife team of Mark’s Bar & Grill. Mark had been escaping Michigan winters in Mexico since the ‘70s. And in 1986, he bought a ramshackle retreat on a corner a block from the beach and opened Mark’s in 1990. The place was just a dive selling beer and hot dogs, where guys left over at the end of the night slept in hammocks, admits Mark.

Jan had come to Mexico from New Zealand as a water skier and stayed to open a store in Vallarta. While exploring the bay in 1991, she happened onto Mark’s and immediately hit it off with the owner. Together, they collected rocks from the beach to build a pizza oven – still in use for everything from meats to baking bread – and Mark’s became a pizzeria and corner gathering place. Menus and ambiance improved steadily; music and live events were added; Jan took over the kitchen; Mark moved into management; and over the years, Mark’s has evolved into a sophisticated eatery and the premiere restaurant in the area. They welcome the many newer restaurants and the growth of Bucerias, believing that the level of dining will only get better as demand grows. Mark’s Bar & Grill Lázaro Cárdenas 56 • Bucerias • Tel (329) 298-0303

Swimmers - Punta de Mita

Rod and Mary Ingram exemplify a couple that works together effectively by focusing their energies toward a common goal. Members of a close-knit family, they are longtime residents and successful entrepreneurs on the North Shore. By operating their beautiful Hotel Villa Amor in Sayulita and the charming beach restaurant simply named “O,” they developed valuable firsthand experience in the hospitality industry. Additionally, they became involved in real estate and, after many years of successful selling and developing real estate via word of mouth, they set up a company to accommodate the growing demand for oceanfront property in the region. Eventually, they moved inside the bay, to the development of Punta Mita.

Recently, they unveiled Swimmers, their fabulous new beachfront restaurant and bar that is, in eff ect, a “one-stop shopping” location. It houses their real estate offices, called Punta Mita Reality, a home decor shop and the restaurant/bar. Through unique architecture and a breathtaking view, Swimmers creates the ambiance of a tropical island, the unique and funky feel of this bar enticing locals, cruisers and sailors. The menu highlights fresh seafood prepared and presented with the greatest of care and attention.

With teamwork and vision, the Ingrams have been able to turn their dreams into reality. Swimmwers Av. Anclote 4 • Punta Mita • Tel. (329) 291-5418

Mezzogiorno - Bucerias

At one point, Sidney Lechter owned seven restaurants in Los Angeles and Park City, Utah, and only came to Vallarta on the occasional vacation. When he and now-partner Enrique Cremaschi decided to open a restaurant together, they considered Buenos Aires, where Enrique lived. But Sidney wanted someplace really warm – in climate and spirit – and convinced his colleague to visit Vallarta. Enrique fell in love with the place. So in 2000, the collaborators launched the successful Mezzaluna in downtown Puerto Vallarta while purchasing a home on the beach in a quiet corner of Bucerias.

Then, they realized that as the north part of the bay expanded, their commute to the restaurant, sometimes two or three times a day, was becoming problematic. “We came to Mexico to enjoy it, not to fi nd the same problems as in Los Angeles,” explains Sidney. So the pair, using Sidney’s design background, converted their house into a stunningly classy restaurant and re-opened as Mezzogiorno in October 2006.

“There’s still not enough time for surfing, even with a nearby home,” says Sidney. One or both of the partners is always at the restaurant, Sidney handling the kitchen and Enrique doing “everything else,” including acting as wine expert. “No one can do a great restaurant alone,” affirms Sidney, nodding toward Enrique’s niece, enjoying a working vacation at Mezzogiorno. Mezzogiorno Av. del Pacífi co 33 • Bucerías • Tel. (329) 298-0350

Vito’s Restaurant - El Anclote / Punta de Mita

Vito Latrofa declares himself to be a chef by passion more than schooling. Growing up in a family of seven sisters in the Bari region of Italy, cooking was always a part of life for Vito. Moving to Vancouver, however, he became creative in another way – as a hairdresser. Mexico was just a great getaway, but once Vito and his wife, Teresa, discovered Punta de Mita, something special happened.

“We loved everything about it: the beach, the water, the people, the town …,” exclaims Vito. So they bought land, and Vito built the restaurant himself to resemble the villas he knew in Italy, incorporating a brick oven and living quarters for the family. Vito’s Ristorante Italiano opened on New Year’s Day 2001, and Teresa observes they were blessed when noticed by The Four Seasons the fi rst year.

Making people smile is important to Vito, and he’ll have even more chance of that with his latest venture: a chic pizzeria and bar on the beach in El Anclote. Planned are a huge wood-burning oven to provide artisan breads and pastries, along with pizza, and a wine cave available for private romantic dining. Vito is involved in every aspect of both restaurants but also relies on his wife, daughter and loyal staff . “Your main people have to be like family, have to be involved, to make a restaurant successful,” Vito affirms. Vito’s Restaurant Pez Vela 133 • Punta Mita • Tel. (329) 291-6480