A very long time ago, let’s call it 1982, I impulsively walked into the tropical courtyard of a Mexican restaurant in Old Town, San Diego, and felt like I’d landed in Macondo.
Palms and twisted old trees created a canopy over the rough wood tables and chairs. Ancient pink-bloomed bougainvillea scaled the walls and cascaded over the top. A misty evening dew was seeping through the canopy. Firefly lights and torches gave just the right mix of light and shadow in which both ghosts and diners could flourish comfortably.
Whether I’d arrived there by accident or destiny, I’ll never know for sure.
I recall that I was on the cusp of making the biggest decision of my life up to that point. I was in San Diego to try out for a job at one of the city’s daily newspapers and there was so much more than a career move at stake that I can’t begin to write about it now.
But a decision needed to be made. Take the job? Move from New England across the country? Leave family, friends and loved ones behind? What was I thinking?
I loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” passionately. And to feel as if I’d dropped into its pages, if only for a night, well, I took it as a sign. I was meant to be here. This was my destiny.
It probably wasn’t the first career move made with the assistance of magical realism. But it worked for me.
I loved my time in San Diego. I loved seeing my three sons grow up there into young men, and being a serious part of their lives. I loved my career as a writer and editor, even when subsequent owners became bigger and bigger …. No, let’s just say the quality of ownership deteriorated over time.
That fateful night in the courtyard restaurant meant a lot and when I returned to San Diego as an employee of The Tribune I was determined to go back and reabsorb the spirit of Macondo whenever I could.
Here’s the thing: I could not find it.
Believe me, I looked and I found restaurants and I found courtyards – show me a border town that doesn’t have a multitude of courtyard restaurants.
But I never found that exact one.
I’ll leave it at that. Draw your own conclusions.
But here’s the thing, I’m a sucker for courtyard dining. It takes me back. Which is why the first time we stopped into Coconut Café, in a courtyard across the street from Ramon’s Village here in San Pedro, Belize I felt the old Macondo twitch.
It isn’t exactly the same.
But, indeed, Coconut Cafe is surrounded by high walls and they are guarded by lush tropical plantings – banana trees, fruit trees, flowering bushes – that soften the womb created by the walls. You enter from the street through a sturdy wooden door that gives the feeling you are escaping into something or away from something.
The dining area is a step up on to a wooden deck, beneath the cooling shade of the palapa roof. Quickly the manic traffic on Coconut Drive straightaway becomes like a silent movie viewed through the open doors.
I thought, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” — long before I knew the owners, Timm Crouch and Donna Ehart, were from Kansas City. (When I first wrote, this I assumed that was Kansas City, Missouri, and I assumed wrong. They are indeed from Kansas!)
Donna and I have been communicating a bit in the last couple of months as they wrap up their lives in the States for the big move to Belize. Rose and I actually had stopped in a couple of times between yoga classes at Zen Arcade, which is just around the block. We’d met the manager Wilbert, a delightful fellow who gives us little Kriol lessons with our food. And we just met their chef, David.
So it was great to find out that Donna and Timm were down this week. Understandably they have a legal tablet-long checklist items to be accomplished in their one week, including an open house on Thursday to introduce the restaurant to the San Pedro community.
We met for lunch after yoga on Tuesday and got to hear their own story of how the Coconut Café came to be.
They came to San Pedro last fall in search of a retirement business they could invest in. Ready to retire, not ready to do nothing! Both of them have extensive tech careers behind them so naturally their approach was rational, logical and methodical – like any good techie.
And naturally, in a heartbeat, they fell in love with San Pedro, with the space and with the concept of Coconut Café. They hardly had time for a sunburn before they were signing papers, drawing up plans and hiring staff. And then flying back to the States to begin closing up shop. The restaurant opened in January.
In a DIY World, their restaurant concept is pretty cool – design your own pizzas, burritos and paninis from an extensive list of ingredients. You get a check list and a pencil and the chef does the rest. They have a good location, a good setting, a good menu and a good staff.
The challenge now, and it is a familiar one on this island, is how to draw people into Coconut Café.
They are sharp people with lots of ideas and you just know that Donna and Timm are in Paradise for keeps. They will find a way.