The countdown to one of 2020’s most highly-anticipated new projects officially starts now with the reveal of Callie, the debut restaurant from Travis Swikard that marks the chef’s return to his hometown of San Diego after spending more than a decade in New York City as a key member of revered chef Daniel Boulud’s culinary team.
Callie is set to open next spring in the East Village at the corner of Island and Park, in the 6,500-square-foot space that housed Bottega Americano until its shutter in early 2018. It will be transformed by Los Angeles-based design and architecture firm Studio Unltd, whose eye-catching work is on view at famed LA restaurants including Bestia, Bavel, and Otium and locally at Curadero and Copa Vida.
Swikard says he knew he was destined for chefdom at age 4. He took his first cooking job while in high school in San Diego and subsequently enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute; from there, he traveled to England to train at chef Phil Thompson’s acclaimed Auberge du Lac. Returning to the States in 2008, he was invited to New York by chef Gavin Kaysen, whom he met while they were both cooking in San Diego. Kaysen had left San Diego to run the Michelin-starred Café Boulud, and Swikard swiftly moved up the ranks in the French kitchen until he was tapped to help open Boulud Sud, a contemporary Mediterranean restaurant on the Upper West Side. Named its executive chef in 2013, Swikard also served as culinary director of Bar Boulud and Epicerie Boulud.
It was through his participation in the development of Boulud Sud’s menu that Swikard found his muse. The name Callie comes from “kallos”, meaning beautiful in Greek, and also references the Greek muse of music and song. Calling it “cuisine du soleil”, his food reflects influences from Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco, the Middle East, but his “Cal-Med” style is informed by Swikard’s obsessive enthusiasm for sourcing local ingredients, from fresh yogurt made at a El Cajon market to lamb raised in Poway and backyard-grown citrus and avocados.
Since his arrival back in San Diego last fall, the chef has been giving diners a taste of what’s to come; at a preview dinner at Ironside, his menu included local sand dabs grilled in grape leaves with charred Persian cucumbers, lemon-dill yogurt, and smoked trout roe and brik, a Tunisian pastry filled with local tuna belly confit, preserved lemon, caper, and green harissa.
Longtime mentor Kaysen says the recent attention from Michelin and James Beard should help to draw more chefs like Swikard to San Diego. The chef has fond memories of his time here, and tells Eater that he could someday return open a restaurant. Kaysen says that he sees Swikard’s journey mirroring his own post-Boulud experience. Kaysen grew up in Minnesota and moved from New York back to Minneapolis to open Spoon and Stable, Bellecour, and Demi; in 2018, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest.
With Callie, Swikard says he’s hoping to create a restaurant that will help to bolster the neighborhood and bring more national recognition to San Diego as a dining destination. Geared towards communal dining, the vegetable-forward menu will feature housemade pasta, flatbreads, and crudo dishes. The East Village space will include a coffee and pastry area, 30-seat cocktail bar, lunch cafe, semi-open kitchen, and private dining room.
Swikard will not be building Callie alone; his partners include David Cohn and Deborah Scott of the Cohn Restaurant Group (CRG), who bring their considerable expertise to the project. Though Callie will not be an official member of the CRG, it will capitalize on his 15-year relationship with the group, which gave him his very first job at Kemo Sabe in Hillcrest. Swikard recently helped the group refresh the menus at Island Prime and Coasterra as well as launch Black Rail Kitchen in Carlsbad.
The chef plans to continue doing pop-ups and preview dinners until Callie’s Spring 2020 opening. Next up is a kick-off event for Los Angeles Food & Wine at Otium on August 22 and a collaboration at Fork Oak in Mission Hills scheduled for September 26.