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Long-anticipated Callie restaurant aims to define the new San Diego culinary wave

Chef/owner Travis Swikard inside his new East Village restaurant Callie on May 28.
Chef/owner Travis Swikard inside his new East Village restaurant Callie.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Homegrown Travis Swikard moved back home from New York to open his dream restaurant in East Village

It’s been nearly two years since chef/owner Travis Swikard found the East Village space to open his highly anticipated restaurant, Callie, but the pandemic and construction issues slowed its debut to a snail’s crawl.

But today, San Diego diners will finally get the chance to taste Swikard’s hotly anticipated “cuisine du soleil,” the sun-drenched Mediterranean cooking he helped develop as executive chef at Boulud Sud restaurant in Manhattan. Callie’s menu offers the 37-year-old San Diego native’s take on the foods of Greece, Spain Italy, Morocco and the Middle East, made with ingredients sourced locally from Baja to Temecula.

But Callie — derived from the Greek word “Kallos,” meaning “most beautiful” — is no replication of the restaurant where Swikard worked in New York under the famed Michelin-starred French chef Daniel Boulud, who Swikard calls his beloved “mentor, father figure and friend.”

It’s more the culmination of everything Swikard has learned and loved from his childhood in San Diego and his globe-hopping cooking career, which started 22 years ago behind the sushi counter of a Vons supermarket in Santee.

Callie, Swikard said, is an affordable restaurant that’s uniquely San Diegan, as opposed to the pricier, more serious white tablecloth restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“A San Diego restaurant is very fun and feel good, not fancy. It’s chill out, you’re in San Diego,” Swikard said. “I call it ‘heads up’ dining, where people can be laughing and enjoying their dinner and you drop a plate of food in the middle of their table and they just keep on talking.”

Chef/owner Travis Swikard poses for a portrait at his new East Village restaurant Callie on May 28.
Chef/owner Travis Swikard poses for a portrait at his new East Village restaurant Callie on May 28.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Opening a large, 188-seat restaurant at the tail end of the pandemic in a still-gentrifying neighborhood has its risks. But judging by the words this week of Swikard’s two career mentors — Boulud and two-time James Beard Award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen — Swikard is a mature chef ready to step up and make his mark.

Boulud met Swikard in 2008, when he came to New York to work for Kaysen, the former executive chef at Café Boulud. Over the next 10 years, Swikard rose through the ranks of Boulud’s Dinex restaurant group to become executive chef of Boulud Sud and finally culinary director, overseeing 350 employees at Boulud’s three 64th Street restaurants in Manhattan.

Boulud said it was “a natural decision” to promote Swikard and groom his talent because he loved the young chef’s discipline, motivation, dedication to the company mission, appreciation for the classics, leadership ability and business skills, not to mention his cooking.

“His food was always refreshing, on point, well seasoned and interesting,” Boulud said on Tuesday. “I cannot think of going to Southern California without visiting Callie. San Diego needs to take good care of him because he’s a good boy.”

Kaysen, who is now based in Minneapolis, where he owns three restaurants, found early fame in his 20s at the former El Bizcocho restaurant at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. Around 2004, Kaysen took Swikard under his wing when the younger chef begged to come work for free in the El Biz kitchen.

At the time, the 20-year-old Swikard was grieving the death of his brother and desperate for a change of scenery. Kaysen encouraged Swikard to enroll at his former culinary school in Vermont. Then he helped Swikard land some cooking jobs in Europe under chefs like Marco Pierre White, and later hired him at Café Boulud.

“What I ultimately saw in Travis was the same thing I saw in myself, which was really projecting the opportunity. To get it, you have to project it,” Kaysen said. “He’s incredibly driven but he’s very focused on what he wants. He kept his keen sense of curiosity, is respectful and he doesn’t rush the process.”

Chef/owner Travis Swikard slices Chino Farms snap peas at his new East Village restaurant Callie on May 28.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Swikard began feeling the urge to return to San Diego to open his own place about four years ago. It wasn’t long before this news trickled back to David Cohn, who with his wife, Lesley, owns the 25-venue Cohn Restaurant Group in San Diego. The Cohns and their business partner, Deborah Scott, have a soft spot for Swikard, who was just 18 years old when he came to work at CRG’s now-closed Kemo Sabe restaurant in Hillcrest in 2002. David Cohn and Scott decided to recruit him back to San Diego and invest in his restaurant.

“We knew that he was an amazing, hands-on, humble chef that wanted to help elevate the dining scene in his hometown and become a part of our burgeoning restaurant community,” David Cohn said. “Travis wants to work with San Diego’s culinary community as it continues to raise the bar.”

In October 2018, Swikard moved to Rancho Peñasquitos with his wife Mia, an e-commerce marketing entrepreneur, and their sons, Taylor and Trevor. Mia said the fruit trees in the backyard were their home’s No. 1 attraction for her husband, who has been incorporating their own limes, fig leaves and other produce into Callie’s dishes.

After a year of searching, Swikard, David Cohn and Scott leased the 6,500-square-foot former home of Bottega Americano at 1195 Island Ave. in East Village in mid-2019. The vast, multi-concept Italian dining destination closed in 2018, one of many restaurants that had tried and failed in the neighborhood over the past decade. But Swikard said Cohn saw the future potential in the area and he negotiated a great lease that will allow the restaurant time to build a customer base, both among East Village locals and from around San Diego.

“We’re going to make this work. I’m invested in this community and want to help get this area up on its feet,” Swikard said. “I want to build myself into this community and build a community around me.”

Waiting two years to open the restaurant was a grueling process, but Swikard spent the time doing short-term cooking gigs for CRG and other clients, visiting other restaurants to meet the city’s most prominent chefs and rolling with the punches of the pandemic, which led him to hire and let go staff members a couple of times as virus numbers rose and ebbed.

“I’m very proud of Travis as the past two years have been one hurdle after another, but he’s risen above every challenge with grace and used the time to collaborate with our community of great chefs,” Cohn said.

Chef/owner Travis Swikard holds a house-made Kamut baguette at his new East Village restaurant Callie on May 28
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Callie is on the ground floor of the eight-story, 200,000-square-foot Genesis building, recently taken over by Phase 3, a national real estate developer that specializes in life science complexes. Phase 3 is now converting the building’s upper floors into offices and laboratories. Callie has been granted ample room in the building’s underground garage, so diners will get free validated parking, solving one of the problems that has long bedeviled restaurants in parking-starved East Village.

Callie’s interior, designed by Studio UNLTD in L.A., is an homage to Swikard’s San Diego childhood and the rich colors and handicrafts of the Mediterranean.

During his teenage years, Swikard said he spent 4 to 5 afternoons a week sitting on his surfboard off the San Diego coast watching the sun go down. That “golden hour” of afternoon sunlight is reimagined in the multitoned globe lights on the bar, which is topped with a half-barrel-roof inspired by a crashing wave. The undulating tables along the east wall of the restaurant resemble the rolling hills in a skate park. The upholstered banquettes have the look and feel of a skate ramp with a top rail. And there’s a portrait of “The Dude,” the blissed-out L.A. surfer character from “The Big Lebowski,” hanging on the wall.

The Mediterranean influence can be seen in the Moroccan tile walls, the tagine cooking pots in the kitchen, and the Greek-style blue doors and hand-painted toilets. There’s also a bookshelf filled with Swikard’s personal cookbook collection, including several by Boulud — whose writings Swikard started collecting at age 12.

A view of the bar area at chef Travis Swikard's new East Village restaurant Callie, which opens June 4.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Swikard said he knew he wanted to be a chef by age 4. After his parents divorced, he and his brothers were all assigned chores on the weekends they visited their dad. Young Travis always chose the task of cooking for the family, a skill he learned by his father’s side.

“My dad loved throwing a party and my mom had a huge, warm heart, so cooking and having a meal together as a family was always a really special thing for me,” he said.

Among his first restaurant jobs in his teens was working for chef Jason Seibert at the now-shuttered Café Cerise downtown. Swikard said he’d meet Seibert every Sunday morning at the Hillcrest farmers market to buy fresh-picked produce from farmers who still had dirt under their fingernails.

“He taught me cooking isn’t just about the ingredients but about the people behind them,” Swikard said of Seibert.

During the long delay to opening Callie, Swikard had time to build up a network of contacts with local farmers, fishermen and artisan foodmakers, whose wares will be showcased on the nightly menu, served from 5-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. One morning last week, a steady stream of these new friends were walking through Callie’s doors with gifts of fresh-caught sculpin fish, local squid, Temecula olive oil and boxes of citrus fruit. Swikard said he’s so honored by their generosity and goodwill that he often gets teary-eyed and hopes to return the favor with big orders in the future.

Pita bread, hummus and a cocktail are menu starters at Callie restaurant, opening June 4 in East Village.
(Courtesy of Lucianna McIntosh )

Another benefit of a long-delayed opening was the opportunity to build a solid kitchen and management team, including new general manager Ann Sim, a fellow Boulud alum who worked at the Michelin-starred Maude restaurant in Beverly Hills before the pandemic.

“Like me, she’s very driven,” Swikard said. “We both have something to prove.”

Callie’s kitchen crew is making its own hot sauce, fermenting and pickling its own veggies, grinding its own wheat for breads and pita, and making fresh pasta daily. All the fish is fresh-caught, never frozen, and cleaned and fileted in-house. Swikard said his goal is to become the kind of leader and mentor to his workers that Boulud and Kaysen were for him.

“I want to invest my time in real people with real core values and integrity, humility and a willingness to learn,” he said. “I’m not easy on these guys. I drive them hard. ... That’s what I feel, a team that bought in and feels the pulse of my heartbeat.”

The service will be in the shared-plates style with mezze dishes like fresh-baked pita bread, baba ghanoush, crunchy Moroccan carrot salad and raw and cured seafood. There will be three fresh pastas daily, Harissa-spiced lamb chops, yogurt-marinated Aleppo chicken and a Tunisian “brik” dish of potato, tuna and poached egg inside a crispy pastry that chef Boulud said is his favorite Swikard dish.

Spot prawns al Ajillo, one of the dishes on the menu at Callie restaurant in East Village, which opens June 4, 2021.
(Courtesy of Lucianna McIntosh )

Swikard also makes all of his own desserts, which are lighter in style, like a Meyer lemon pavlova, chocolate mousse with cardamom cream, turkish rice pudding and — in his wife’s honor — a chocolate-chip cookie topped with fig leaf-vanilla ice cream. Prices are moderate, ranging from $12 to $20 for spreads, dips and raw seafood dishes, $13 to $21 for vegetable dishes, $21 to $24 for pastas, $21 to $45 for main entrees and $9 to $11 for desserts.

Swikard said lunch service won’t be introduced for a while, though he might offer a to-go lunch service for upstairs office and lab workers when the building opens next year. He’s also toying with the idea of a late-night lounge service exclusively for East Village residents, where he’ll serve cheeseburgers and other comfort food.

Nearly three years since returning to San Diego, Swikard said the wait to open Callie has felt interminable, but he’s ready, excited and more than a little bit nervous. Kaysen said he knows the pressure Swikard is under, since he, too, left New York to return to his roots in Minnesota to open his first restaurant at age 35.

“I can relate to a lot of what he’s going through now and will go through in the next three months. I know how that affects the community positively and sometimes creates a bit of jealousy and fear and competition,” said Kaysen, 42. “But it’s going to raise every restaurant that opens in San Diego if they all go in with the mentality that they’re better as a group and it will make the city better.”

Callie

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
Where: 1195 Island Ave., San Diego (parking garage entrance on 11th Avenue, garage entrance marked 1155 Island)
Phone: (619) 255-9596
Online: calliesd.com

Crunchy Moroccan carrots salad at Callie restaurant, which opens June 4 in East Village.
(Courtesy of Lucianna McIntosh )


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