A star chef’s tortured, year-long quest for the perfect restaurant location ends in the East Village
Chef Travis Swikard, who worked with Daniel Boulud for 10 years in New York, will open Callie in the former Bottega Americano space.
If this whole cooking thing doesn’t work out for chef Travis Swikard, maybe he can be a professional looky loo.
For more than a year, the 35-year-old Santee native — who reached the upper echelon of New York’s dining scene as the right hand to legendary French chef Daniel Boulud — was on a single-minded search for the perfect spot to open his first solo restaurant.
That quest took Swikard to dozens of locations from Little Italy to El Cajon Boulevard, Del Mar to Oceanside, from upscale shopping malls to abandoned industrial spaces, oversaturated dining hubs and not-quite-there yet neighborhoods. Some were too expensive, others were too old and required too much work. A few were simply too boring. With his hard-driving investor-partner David Cohn leading the negotiations with equally tenacious commercial landlords, Swikard’s quixotic scouring of San Diego County was a roller coaster of unfulfilled dreams, disappointment and deal making.
Today, Swikard is celebrating the end of that real estate ride, having landed on the former East Village site of Bottega Americano as the site for his upcoming contemporary California-Mediterranean restaurant, Callie.
Why would that be news in a town where new restaurant announcements occur so regularly, they’ve become the culinary equivalent of white noise?
Beyond the tortured location hunt that led Swikard, Cohn and fellow Cohn Restaurant Group partner Deborah Scott to the East Village, a notorious no-man’s land for ambitious restaurants, Callie’s spring 2020 launch has all the A-list ingredients to be the most high-profile dining event of the coming year. Most notably, in returning home after a 10-year star turn in New York, the West Hills High School grad is bringing with him pedigree and skills that are virtually unrivaled in San Diego — think Kawhi Leonard forming a basketball team or Annette Bening heading up a theater company here.
The fact that all eyes will be on Swikard — as well some competitive culinary knives will be coming out for him — doesn’t faze the married father of two boys and former executive chef of Boulud Sud on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I’m good with that,” he said Wednesday, as a construction crew worked to demolish the remnants of the former Italian restaurant on Island Avenue. “The expectations will be there. But I trained my whole life for this. I trained with the best, I studied with the best, I worked with the best. If I’m not up for it, I shouldn’t be here.”
He said when word got out that he was leaving his post as culinary director of Boulud’s New York restaurant company The Dinex Group, several people reached out to him as possible investors in his San Diego project.
“I’ve always had this sparkle in my eye and drive to be a chef,” Swikard said. “That drive and passion turned into technique and professionalism, and supporters have always said, ‘whenever you’re ready (to open a restaurant), let me know.’ Deb (Scott) said that to me when I was 18.”
That level of confidence, some would say cockiness, is backed up by ability, said Cohn, whose CRG dining empire includes nearly 30 restaurants, and who, along with Scott, were Swikard’s first bosses in the restaurant business.
“We’ve worked with Travis since he was a teenager,” Cohn said. “We realized early on Travis’ skill set.”
And Swikard saw theirs. He declined other investment offers and decided to pair up with Cohn and Scott, though Callie will not be under the Cohn Restaurant Group umbrella. Going into business with arguably the most successful restaurateurs in the county would seem a no-brainer. With deep pockets and deeper expertise in a famously fraught industry, Cohn and Scott have been instrumental in developing the business model for Callie as well as navigating the regulatory thicket associated with launching a restaurant.
Negotiating a favorable lease was the most important step, he said, and Cohn proved invaluable through the process.
“If there’s anyone to go into business with, he’s the guy,” Swikard said. “That guy is a bull.”
The negotiated deal calls for the eight-story building’s Denver-based landlord, who’d lost not only Bottega Americano but the beleaguered Thomas Jefferson Law School as tenants, to help pay for improving the restaurant space. Swikard said the 6,500-square-foot site still has intact a virtually new infrastructure of hoods, vents and piping that would cost $1 million to install from scratch.
Cohn said the project is a $2 million investment. Though sizable, the amount is paltry compared to such statement eateries as the upcoming Animae from Brian Malarkey, which is projected to cost $5.5 million, or Little Italy’s Born & Raised, which clocked in at $6.6 million, or Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse, which dropped jaws at $10 million for its bay-front waterside perch.
The noted L.A. design and architecture firm Studio Unltd, whose clients include L.A.'s buzzy Bestia, Bavel and Otium, as well as Curadero in downtown San Diego’s Hotel Palomar, is designing Callie. Airy and bright from walls of windows and 23-foot ceilings, Studio Unltd is — in a nod to the everything-will-be-Instgrammed era — paying particular attention to lighting. The color palette will include Mediterranean blues and terra cotta. Swikard said the approximately 120-seat dining room, private dining room, wrap-around bar, wine room and cafe area will reflect the cuisine’s hybrid of market-driven California fare with elevated, modern Mediterranean flavors, spices and techniques that span from Spain to France, Italy to Greece to Morocco, Lebanon, Israel and Syria.
The branding company Folklor, also L.A. based but headed by San Diego native Rudy Moujaes, will give Callie a casual, California beach vibe like it brought to the popular Venice eatery Gjelina.
“If there’s money that needs to be spent, it’ll be spent. But we’re not going to spend stupid money,” Swikard said. “You can have the best cuisine in the world, you can have all the hospitality, but in the end, this is a business. This needs be sustainable.”
Though exceedingly popular in the beginning of its three-plus years, Bottega Americano turned out not to be sustainable. Cohn said the stylish Italian restaurant, which shuttered in February 2018, arrived in the East Village about five years too early. The area, a block from the San Diego Central Library, has been beset by homeless encampments, undesirable 12th Avenue transit-line loitering and scarce parking. But Cohn noted that a boom of luxury high-rises, an upcoming U.C. San Diego campus, and plans for a swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel, high-end grocery store and retail, are transforming the East Village into a bustling neighborhood and a prime destination.
During their thorough countywide search, “we kept coming back to the East Village,” Cohn said. “It shouldn’t have taken this long but it did. With Travis’ style and name and the cachet he brings, we just felt we could make that location very successful.” There is also underground parking.
Chef Giuseppe Ciuffa, one of Bottega Americano’s partners, ticked off the neighborhood’s enduring issues but agreed with Cohn’s assessment that the restaurant was five years too soon. The restaurant, he added, was located about three blocks too far east.
“There was no foot traffic, we were kind of hidden,” said Ciuffa, who recently opened his first post-Bottega Americano restaurant, Candor, in La Jolla. “People supported us in the beginning because of who we are and because of our food. But it was hard to have a concierge send (hotel guests) to us when they want to go to a place that’s alive. ... We were the golden boy of the neighborhood but everything around us wasn’t up to par.”
Ciuffa conceded that Bottega Americano “overshot it with the prices and fine dining ... We were just too much for what the neighborhood has to offer.”
He likes Cohn’s chances on making the restaurant succeed, as does restaurant real estate expert Mike Spilky, president of Location Matters. Spilky said between a favorable lease agreement negotiated by Cohn and the restaurant group’s economies of scale, Callie already has a strong foundation.
“The East Village is getting to the point that there’s enough density to support a few more restaurants, and it will draw from outside the neighborhood because of Travis’ name,” Spilky said. “If there’s anybody who can do it there, that team can pull it off.”
Like Ciuffa, Spilky cautioned about taking Callie too high end. “If he’s going for a super-fancy, Michelin-quality restaurant, that’s not going to work. He’s got to make it more casual, more affordable.”
That’s just what Cohn and Swikard said they’re planning.
“I think we’re trying to find that balance, we’re intentionally not trying to be New York, we’re intentionally trying not to be anything but San Diego,” Cohn said. “We want it to be big city but still be grounded.”
No worries, said Swikard, an avid surfer and skateboarder whose nickname at restaurants from London to New York City has been “Cali Boy.”
He wants Callie to have a neighborhood vibe that will help be a catalyst for an emerging area. And he’s promising the experience will be jovial, accessible and affordable, where diners will share produce-forward plates made with a simplified, light touch. Don’t expect heavy, butter-laden French cuisine.
“Do I know French technique? I do. But that’s for the second restaurant.”
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