People Still Seat Their Beautiful Selves At La Fonda To Honor Beloved Dimitri

Owner Of The Iconic Baja Restaurant/Hotel Passed Nov. 10

On a recent Saturday, hundreds of people gathered inside a restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean near the border of Rosarito and Ensenada. It was adorned in Old Mexico décor and draped in flowers. A mariachi band played. People toasted and talked.

Many of the people packed inside the restaurant and seated on the outside patio wore white T-shirts. The backs of the T-shirts bore the photo of a robust-looking older man and the words “Beautiful Day.” The fronts read “A Legend Forever.”

The man pictured on the T-shirts was Orest Waysal Dmytriw, also known as both Dimitri and Joe. In the 1970s with his wife, Sara, Dimitri had begun building this place, La Fonda, from a modest roadside restaurant and inn into the iconic Baja landmark it was now.

The date of this day’s celebration of Dimitri’s life was Nov. 20. He had died 10 days before at the age of 86 following a stroke. As well as Sara, he left behind three daughters. A son had preceded him in death.

Sara was inside Dmytriw’s Original La Fonda this day, graciously greeting the hundreds who had come for the tribute to her late husband of more than four decades. In years past, Dimitri had greeted many in today’s throng with his trademark “Seat your beautiful selves.”

“He’s a legend,” Sara said a few days before the tribute. “There was no other person like him and there will be no other person like him.”

It wasn’t just Sara, his partner in the business as well as his wife, who described the affable Dimitri with glowing words. So did so many of the countless thousands of Baja natives, expatriates and tourists who frequented Dmytriw’s Original La Fonda over the decades.

So did the Los Angeles Times, which in 2002 did one of the numerous articles written on La Fonda (The Inn) over its many decades.

“Those who know him regard (Dimitri) and the inn as Baja classics; an expatriate businessman of devilish wit who turned a jumble of cliff-top rooms a few hours drive south of Los Angeles into a hideaway where young and old come to get lost,” the Times wrote.

In a 2000 article, Orange Coast magazine characterized Dimitri as “a colorful and gregarious optimist who makes everyone feel like they’ve stepped through their own front door/”

The writers of those articles, like so many others, perhaps almost immediately felt like they knew him, But it was perhaps those who repeatedly frequented his iconic La Fonda who knew him better.

Former Rosarito mayor and Rosarito Beach Hotel owner Hugo Torres said of Dimitri: “He was a good friend of mine and I often visited his restaurant and bar. Also, many times I showed La Fonda to friends that visited from far away.”

This from Judy Westphal, a longtime expatriate resident of Rosarito: “Walking into La Fonda and looking at that empty first seat at the bar is difficult. But I will forever see Dmytri and his wonderful smile, his big hug and ‘Great to see you - seat your beautiful self’ welcome.”

Orest Waysal Dmytriw was born Jan. 15, 1935 in Saskatchewan, Canada to Ukranian immigrants.

After leaving Canada, Dmytriw was a building contractor in Los Angeles until the 1970s when he happened across a modest Baja restaurant and inn. It was owned by former New York socialite Eve Stoker, who had built it in 1962 on a beautiful bluff with breathtaking views.

La Fonda was on a lightly developed stretch of the free road between Rosarito and Ensenada, at kilometer 59.5, about 37 miles south of the U/S.-Mexico border and 18 miles south of Rosarito. It was an excellent location to attract both locals and tourists.

Dimitri told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 that he quickly decided to buy the beautiful place on the bluff overlooking the Pacific, which stretched almost endlessly below.

“The previous owner wanted cash for the joint, so I went back to the United States and sold everything I had,” he recalled. “Years later, she wrote me a letter that said, ‘I’m so glad it’s you. You’re a perfect fit.’ ”

At the time of the purchase, La Fonda was a small restaurant, a hotel with 16 rooms and 11 employees. By 2002, Dimitri and Sara had expanded it to a large restaurant with 26 rooms and more than 100 employees.

Dimitri, a skilled contractor, did much of the construction himself, Many of the rooms had fireplaces, sunken tubs, No two were exactly alike. Rooms had their own names and much of the décor could be described as unique, sometimes almost eccentric.

La Fonda’s setting on top of a bluff overlooking an expansive sandy beach and the beckoning Pacific is stunning, The Old Mexico architecture, tile work, statuary, bougainvillea, banana palms and other lush foliage add to the panoramic beauty.

At times whales passed by and dolphins frolicked in waves, watched over by diners on La Fonda’s patio. Live music always seemed to be playing and people danced.

Eclectic menus featuring meats, seafood and some gourmet ingredients were written daily on a chalkboard, often by Dimitri himself, and the meals carefully prepared. Local farms and the Pacific provided many of the fresh ingredients which diners enjoyed at candlelit tables.

But it was the Dmytriws themselves, his outgoing and gregarious personality and her graciousness, that gave La Fonda much of its extensive popularity.

In 2004, the Dmytriws sold La Fonda and the land it sat upon, But in 2014, a dispute on the sale ended up in a Tijuana court. The Dmytriws were awarded back the original restaurant. The 2004 buyer received what is now Gary’s La Fonda adjacent to the original.

At the time of the 2004 sale Dimitri, flashing his famous wit, told the Los Angeles Times: “You don’t see too many 70-year-olds running Baja beer joints. Now, I want to do some things I haven’t had time for: Go to a baseball game and eat a hot dog.”

Of course, La Fonda was and is so much more than a Baja beer joint, and Dimitri much more than a guy running one. The icon’s countless thousands of guests, including many celebrities and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a frequent visitor, have enthusiastically attested to that.

A grandson said the Dmytriws traveled extensively between 2004 and 2014. Still, Sara said the couple was happy to get the Original Dmytriw’s La Fonda back that year, and she plans to continue to operate it.

At that Nov. 20 celebration of life, as the band played on and people seated their beautiful selves to honor of the man and who once had hosted most of them, Sara Dmytriw reflected on her late husband.

“It was a beautiful send-off,” Sara said, one that Dimitri would have enjoyed, “He loved life and he loved people. He once said to me: ‘I’ve been the happiest man. I wouldn’t change my life for anything.’”

JANUARY 15, 1935 – NOVEMBER 10, 2021

Orest Waysal Dmytriw, age 86, of Chula Vista, California passed away on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. Orest was born January 15, 1935.

Orest Waysal Dmytriw

JANUARY 15, 1935 – NOVEMBER 10, 2021

Orest Waysal Dmytriw, age 86, of Chula Vista, California passed away on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. Orest was born January 15, 1935.

A

graveside service for Orest will be held Sunday, November 14, 2021 at 2:00 PM.

Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.harborlawn.com for the Dmytriw family.

dm-flowers SEND FLOWERS

Yes he WAS a good friend of mine and I often visited his restaurant and bar. Also,

Many times I showed LA FONDA to friends that visited from FAR away………. Hugo Torres

Hundreds of friends and tourists alike have been blessed to know Joe

Dmytri. I've been honored to know this amazing gentleman since 1994 and will carry this friendship with me in my heart. Judy Westphal

“His presence on the coast will be missed,” said Mark Kolek, who with his wife, Debra, were frequent visitors to Dimitri’s restaurant when they had a beach house in Rosario.

LA Times 2002:

Those who know him regard the iconoclastic Ukrainian-Canadian-American-Mexican and his inn as Baja classics; an expatriate businessman of devilish wit who turned a jumble of cliff-top rooms a few hours drive south of Los Angeles into a hideaway where young and old come to get lost.

So it shocked La Fonda’s faithful clientele to learn that the old hotel, whose 26 rooms are known by their whimsical features--the Conversation Pit, the Killer Shower, the Lava Heart Over the Bed--is on the market. For $3.9 million.

After 27 years of catering to surfers, adventurers, Mexican officials--and sharing moonshine tequila with the likes of U.S. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Alan Simpson--the man some liken to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in the film “Casablanca” has declared: “Llego el momento"--It’s time to move on.

“You don’t see too many 70-year-olds running Baja beer joints,” said Dmytriw (pronounced duh-MEE-tree). “Now, I want to do some things I haven’t had time for: Go to a baseball game and eat a hot dog. Take my wife out dancing.”

Dmytriw was a North Hollywood building contractor when he bought La Fonda in 1975 after a 30-minute tour of the place, which sits so close to the city limits of Rosarito Beach on the north and Ensenada on the south that he pays taxes in both cities.

Greg Niemann

It was certainly one of the most memorable and romantic settings, an old Mexican inn perched on a verdant brush-covered cliff overlooking a broad, sandy beach where dolphins frolic offshore and whales can be seen in winter. The tile patio had tables half-hidden behind dense potted palms, thick banana trees and magenta bougainvillea. They were shaded with thatch umbrellas to provide framing for dynamite views of dramatic sunsets.

That outside patio was the crowning glory of La Fonda, which is why we sometimes went there for breakfast or lunch. The restaurant inside is perfect for cooler evenings. A rip-roaring fire in the fireplace and dancing to the live music made it a fun place to be.

From the mid-1970s through the 1990s, I went there a lot and got to know many of the staff at La Fonda. Early on, the live combo played more for listening enjoyment rather than dancing and people used to crowd the old piano bar to hear Salvador on the ivories, Carlos on the drums, and Alfonso with the conga drum. They all sang along too and Alfonso had a marvelous rich, tenor voice. About two or three times each night one of us would cajole them into doing “Granada” just to marvel at Alfonso’s wonderful range.

La Fonda Baja Sara and Orest Dmytriw

La Fonda was built and developed in 1962 by Eve Stocker on a beachfront bluff 37 miles south of the border. Orest “Joe” Dmytriw, a Ukrainian/Canadian/American and his wife Sara bought the place in 1975 and through their improvements and guidance created the popular retreat. It was a small restaurant with a few rooms and 16 employees when they took over. By 2002, La Fonda provided employment to almost 100 locals and featured 26 guest rooms.

The old hotel was a real hideaway with the cliff-side rooms reached by stairs meandering down the bluff. The rustic old rooms are whimsical and fun, and even have funky names; no two rooms are alike. There are suites and rooms with private balconies and kitchens, and/or sunken fireplaces and big tubs. The rooms all peek out of the foliage for dramatic views of the ocean.

The Old Mexico feeling is everywhere, from the cobblestone parking out front, to the tile throughout, to the broad sweeping window views, to the tropical plants and thatched patio.

I know several people from Southern California who used to stay occasionally at La Fonda. Many from Hollywood had discovered the charm of Old Mexico. Eva Gabor spent her honeymoon at La Fonda, in #14, the Gold Room. Frank Sinatra, Phil Harris and Bob Crosby have also all reputedly been among the legions of customers to the romantic inn on the bluff.

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