Opening of Callie restaurant in East Village is once again on hold

Chef Travis Swikard in the East Village space that will be home to Callie restaurant.
Chef Travis Swikard photographed in August 2019 in the East Village space that will be home to Callie, his California-Mediterranean cuisine restaurant. The restaurant’s opening has been delayed, once again, by the pandemic.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Chef Travis Swikard’s new restaurant was set for Dec. 16 opening until county shut down indoor dining this month


When Travis Swikard returned to his native San Diego two years ago, after 10 years in the employ of Michelin-starred French chef Daniel Boulud in New York City, his dream was to open his own restaurant and bring everything he learned back to his hometown.

First came a yearlong search for the right venue followed by construction delays. Then, just as he was set to open his California-Mediterranean restaurant Callie in the former Bottega Americano space in East Village last spring, the pandemic struck.

He laid off his general manager and chef de cuisine and aimed instead for an August opening. But that date came and went as the pandemic raged on. Then last month, when San Diego County dropped into the restrictive purple tier for what could be an extended stay, he was forced once again to cancel a planned mid-December opening, lay off his new general manager and chef de cuisine and put Callie back into hibernation.

Yet despite the ups and downs of the past year, Swikard said he’s looking for the silver linings in the storm clouds. Running a new restaurant is an 80-hour-a-week commitment, and if he’d jumped into that right away last year, he might not have had the time to immerse himself as deeply as he has into San Diego’s culinary community.

Over the past year, Swikard said he has been building relationships with local fishermen as well as farmers like Jack Ford at Taj Farms and Noel Stehly at Stehly Organics. He’s been filming educational cooking videos for the Rancho Santa Fe nonprofit SMARTS Farms. He’s been networking with local chefs and volunteering in friends’ restaurant kitchens. And from March through July of this year, he led Cohn Restaurant Group’s food pantry kitchen, making takeout meals for laid-off employees.

“My main goal since I came back was to build myself into the community,” said the Santee-raised Swikard. “I want to show my humility and work with restaurants where cooks can see who I am. This is an industry that if you’re not gracious and full of hospitality and generous at heart, it’s really hard to make it anywhere for a long time.”

Swikard’s investor-partners in Callie are Cohn Restaurant Group founder David Cohn and Cohn’s business partner Deborah Scott. They gave a teenage Swikard his first cooking job back in 2002 and welcomed him back in September 2018 from New York, where he’d served as culinary director for Boulud’s Dinex restaurant group and, before that, executive chef at Boulud Sud.

Cohn and Scott have helped keep Swikard employed this year with consulting jobs at several of their restaurants and investment projects, including BO-beau Kitchen in La Mesa, Coasterra and Island Prime. As a first-time restaurant owner, Swikard said it’s been gut-wrenching seeing the toll the pandemic has taken on both Cohn and Scott and their employees. After the purple tier was announced, Cohn and his wife, Lesley, permanently closed three of their restaurant properties in Hillcrest, Tacos Libertad and BO-beau Kitchen and Caché restaurant/speakeasy. The side-by-side businesses opened in 2017.

“To see him going through the emotional burden of having to let go of employees who have worked for him for 20 years has been super tough,” Swikard said. “He wears a tough skin, but I know it wears on him. He’s one of those people who has done everything he can to take care of his employees along the way.”

As for when Callie will open, Swikard isn’t ready to venture a guess. He could open a break-even operation serving guests at 25 percent capacity and even make a little money at 50 percent capacity, but the situation is too unstable now to take the risk. And even if the state permits indoor dining again, Swikard said he won’t open until he’s confident diners are ready to eat indoors again.

“I’m this chef with these big dreams sitting in this amazing restaurant with plastic draped all over my tables. It’s beautiful, but it’s heartbreaking at the same time,” he said. “For me, it’s all about staying positive, that’s all you can do.”

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