Just imagine a 27,000-square-foot restaurant, on the water with a beach lounge and breathtaking views. Now imagine chowing down some modern Mexican cuisine, while also taking in the New York City surrounding and only being a 5-minute boat ride from downtown.
That exact vision has just come to life in the form of GITANO Island, the latest project from Grupo Gitano, led by James Gardner, located on Governors Island—with a new menu by executive chef Antonio Maldonado, as the restaurant and beach lounge gets set in a palm tree jungle oasis with twin wood dining pergolas, beach cabanas, and sweeping city views.
To get more insight on what is soon to be the ultimate NYC hotspot of summer ’23, V caught up with Garder to get the low down on the island.
V Magazine: Talk to us a bit about how the idea to open up Gitano Island on Gov Island. Why bring the island vibes that Gitano is known for to NYC?
James Gardner: We never imagined that we could find an NYC location that topped the Garden of Love in Soho, but we did! Governors Island is just a 5-minute boat ride from the gorgeous Battery Maritime Building, that also houses Casa Cipriani, downtown NYC. When you leave the Manhattan mainland and arrive on the island, just a few minutes later, you are transported to another world, you leave the city without leaving (Governors Island is part of Manhattan), without sitting in traffic out East or dealing with airports. GITANO Island is set in an almost 30,000-square-foot waterfront jungle paradise. We have transported hundreds of palm trees and tropical plants and 350 tons of sand. We have literally created a glamorous, luxurious waterfront restaurant and beach club from Tulum, right here in the city, with the added drama of spectacular downtown city skyline views!
V: What is it about the “island” in particular that you feel fills a void that NYC was missing?
JG: I have lived and worked in NYC for over twenty years, I am a Brit but also officially a New Yorker. I have been to many fabulous fashion shows and parties and all the best restaurants and clubs, but I have personally never seen or experienced anything quite like GITANO ISLAND, and I am pretty sure nothing like this exists currently or previously. Governors Island has had events, like a super glamorous Cartier event a few years ago, but has never had a destination like GITANO before; GITANO ISLAND is a glamorous event every day and every night! New Yorkers love to get dressed up, to go for dinner and dancing, to see and be seen. If they can do that all in one place, a place that feels like a vacation without traveling, that has delicious food and cocktails, fabulous views and vibes, then I definitely think that’s bringing something new to the city that has seen everything!
V: Now coming back post-pandemic with actual party activations for people from around the globe, how has the response been with Gitano not slowing down and providing a sense of euphoric escape, aside from all that has happened with the world?
JG: GITANO offers a respite and an escape, both during and post-pandemic. We were almost perfectly designed for the requirements of being outside and with plenty of space. People still love this. It is also rare to have an open outdoor space that allows a full and pumping Martin Audio sound system, DJs, and live performances. Governors Island doesn’t have residents, seeing and feeling this experience is quite unique in the city. Our mission is sharing happiness through elevated, transportive, luxury experiences, so we hope to be helping the world in some small way.
V: More than a drink/food destination, it seems the island will serve as a real program community hub. Why was incorporating this factor into the island, rather than just keeping it as a club and dining destination, so crucial to you?
JG: Yes, that is a great point and observation. Being a core part of and supporting our community is very important. We have a strong following within the LGBTQ+ community for example, I am part of the community myself. We have programmed benefits and events and have a cocktail named after my friend Connie Flemming “The Connie Girl ” where we donate a portion of proceeds to the Marsha P Johnson Institute. We are also working to connect and integrate with the thousands of Governors Island visitors, many of whom are families with kids, and we are launching specific initiatives for them during the daytime on weekdays. We have a full program for the season ahead, from wellness and meditation during the day and fun programming for each day of the week. Starting the week off with our GITANO Burlesque performance on Monday, live music on Tuesdays, Latin-X, our Spanish party on Wednesday, Thursdays are very Fashion, Fridays Island Disco, Saturdays are well Saturdays, and on Sundays, we are introducing our first Drag Brunch, followed by Love Sensation, our special LGBTQ+ sunset party. We are so proud and honored that so many fabulous people are part of our GITANO community and keep coming back all season long!
V: What are some design elements that differ from the other locations that make the island stand out the most?
JG: GITANO ISLAND is almost like our Greatest Hits Album! We will be celebrating our 10th Anniversary at the end of the year, so that feels quite appropriate. We are bringing together all the best parts of our locations, from architecture and design to food, beverage, and music. We have created an actual beach on the edge of the NYC harbor, and we have created a jungle garden paradise, complete with a lotus pond, waterfall, and of course, a giant disco ball! Even though we have many elements that will feel like home to guests who have visited our other locations, at the same time, it also feels completely different, nestled between beautiful historic buildings, giant oak trees, and the water and city skyline backdrop.
V: With the return of the island, comes a new Mexican menu crafted by Executive Chef Antonio Maldonaldo. What are some of the dishes we can expect to see? Any personal favorites? What was the direction you and Antonio wanted to go in for the menu?
JG: We developed our Modern Mexican food concept and approach over the last few years. Chef Antonio joined the opening of GITANO Miami at the end of 2019 in partnership with the Faena. Antonio is from Puebla in Mexico and is a very talented Chef. He has really elevated our culinary program and menu overall. Our idea is to take classic Mexican dishes and street food and elevate them in a way that is both simple and sophisticated. This year for GITANO ISLAND, he has created a new menu that we are all very excited about. We have Botanas, a new favorite will be the snap peas with cashews, we have Tostadas and Antojitos, I love the Lobster Tostada, our take on a lobster roll, also the Hamachi and Grilled Avocado Tostada, a Mushroom Sope with Black Truffles, the Duck Carnitas Huarache, then large Plates include the amazing slow roasted Short-Rib Birria, Crispy Chicken in Red Mole and Octopus Zarandeado. I love everything on the menu but especially our new fish, the Lubina in Corn Husk, with Mexican sake and Swiss chard! I cannot resist our new Cazuela de Chocolate, very naughty, though. Finally, and not to be missed, we are introducing GITANO Caviar, serviced with a chipotle creme fraiche, sopes, and traditional accompaniments. All of our masa tortillas and sopes are homemade and delicious!