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Good Times on the Baja Coast

Tourism: The owner of a storied roadhouse decides to move on. Faithful clientele say it just won't be the same.

June 17, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA MISION, Mexico — It's Friday afternoon and Orest Dmytriw is balancing on a chair, trying to plaster the ceiling of the crowded bar at his unique Baja roadhouse, La Fonda.

Suddenly, a chef emerges from the kitchen and announces in breathless tones that a fisherman has arrived with a fresh 30-pound halibut for sale.

Clambering down and dusting off his hands, he tells his longtime chef: "Buy it, filet it."

Next, he pivots to face a just-arrived California couple, and with a grand wave of his plaster covered hands, declares: "Welcome to paradise, my friends."

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."

Between margaritas at a table overlooking the sea 50 feet below, retired San Diego lifeguard B. Christmas Brewster, 46, said the place won't be the same without the hotelier with the booming, hard-to-place accent, who greets guests each evening in a jaunty navy blazer, white slacks and Topsiders, sans socks.

"This is it: the tavern in the dark of your imagination," Brewster said. "The odd little roadside joint where crowds of strangers welcome you as family. Only it's a family that doesn't tell tales."

"The paintings in the bedraggled rooms are eccentric, some windows don't close, and the warped mirrors don't reflect who you really are. But there's a spirit here--Dmytriw's. It would be a tragedy if he sold the place."

Los Angeles musician Tracie Jackson, 38, who has been a frequent patron for two decades, agreed.

"When I first started coming here with my friends, we'd spend hours inventing stories about who Dmytriw might really be. International spy? Mafioso?" Jackson said.

"He's as mysterious and wonderful as his hotel. It'd be great if it takes a hundred years to sell it."

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Bought Hotel in 1975

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.

"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.' "

Orest and Sara Dmytriw conjured La Fonda's peculiar charm with rooms of makeshift materials, bunched around steep, narrow stairways.

The original rooms were built hacienda-style, but the rest came in stages that could have been dreamed up by a Cubist painter--drinking absinthe.

The windowed shower stalls in rooms 18 and 19 offer a panoramic view of the beach and an eyeful to strollers on the strand below.

In one room, an arrow drawn in pencil on the wall used to point toward a light switch hidden by a mirror frame.

Guests unload cars in a cramped cobblestone parking area, then trundle to their rooms with five-gallon containers of purified water, ice chests, coffee makers and boomboxes.

"If these walls could talk!" Dmytriw's wife said.

The restaurant sits atop the bluff--covered by thick banks of bougainvillea and bamboo--overlooking the wide, rolling sea. There, patrons sample banana pancakes topped with coconut syrup and margaritas of alarming strength.

Staffers still talk about the tipsy patron who fell off the restaurant balcony and rolled down the hill to the water's edge, laughing all the way.

Until recently, La Fonda had no telephones, not even in its office.

Fireworks were banned only a year ago, after a bottle rocket looped backward and landed in the hotel's unclipped shrubbery, igniting a fire that was put out by staffers and guests.

Years of complaints forced Sara Dmytriw to relocate her menagerie of domestic animals that honked, oinked and chirped at all hours of the day.

In 1979, a flood washed out the bridges on the road leading in and out of the place, leaving dozens of patrons stranded for several days. Among them, the story goes, was a four-star U.S. Army general. His deliverance came in the form of a helicopter, which the general waved in with a red tablecloth.

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Ted Kennedy a Guest

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