Happy Accidents

Chen Yen keeps tradition tasty at Cafe Calypso

Photo by Jeanne RiceIf the streetfront patio outside Café Calypso is the perfect place to enjoy a spiced chai tea with a breakfast bagel melt or maybe a sun-dried-tomato-and-basil wrap and a bottle of SoBe . . . well, that's an accident. The patio was built 75 years ago, when nobody considered such froufrou food the stuff of breakfast or lunch.

But at least it's a happy accident because Orange County's architectural heritage gets so few chances to find meaningful employment in the here and now. And Café Calypso's inventive menu and fresh ingredients draw some real salt-and-pepper legitimacy from being served on the bottom floor of the old Hotel San Clemente.

"I always wanted a little coffee shop," says Chen Yen, who bought Café Calypso with her sister Pan a year ago. "But I never thought I would get something like this. It's like a dream come true, except I couldn't have dreamed it."

Kind of like San Clemente, which in 1925 was conjured as a "Spanish village by the sea" from the imagination and ambition of Wisconsin transplant Ole Hanson. The Hotel San Clemente, a three-story wedding cake of a building with white stucco walls, red-tiled roof and a balcony overlooking a patio, opened near the top of Avenida Del Mar in 1928—a half-block below City Hall. It became the centerpiece of the town's social life. Now it's registered as a historic landmark.

But the Hotel San Clemente is more than a well-preserved corpse. Its 47 rooms have been converted into studio apartments, nearly all of which have ocean views—although you've got to crane your neck from some of the windows—and rent for $650 to $1,295 per month. Its five commercial spaces are filled, too, with stores that sell clothes, art, souvenirs and one hell of a barbecued-chicken sandwich that washes down well with an Italian soda.

"The most-obvious advantage to having our restaurant in the Hotel San Clemente is that it's easy to locate us," says Chen. "But the best thing about it is something else, something you can't describe so easily. I felt it the first time I stopped in to this place."

That was a few years ago, when Chen and her sister drove down to San Clemente from their home in Fountain Valley and stopped at Café Calypso for lunch.

"When you sit down in the patio, next to the fountain, and begin to eat and drink in the sunshine, watching the people go past—it kind of brings you peace," Chen says. "You may forget about everything that is happening now and feel connected to something that came from before. People have been gathering here for a long time. You feel a part of that."

When the previous owner decided to sell Café Calypso, the Chen sisters couldn't wait to buy it. But true to the sense of stability that permeates the Hotel San Clemente, they have been slow to change the restaurant they loved so much when it was owned by the husband-and-wife team of Nick and Kathy Cole.

"We have our ideas, and we are looking forward to implementing them, but we want to respect what was already here," says Chen. "We already have a place that is unlike anything else in town. And people have been enjoying it for 10 years."

Café Calypso opens at 6 a.m. every day and serves breakfasts until closing—4 p.m. in winter, 7 in summer. That breakfast bagel melt is a killer, with steamed scrambled eggs, roma tomatoes and provolone cheese baked onto the bagel. The lunch menu consists of wraps, sandwiches and salads; the Greek wrap (a sun-dried-tomato-and-basil tortilla packed with cucumber, artichoke hearts, veggies, feta cheese and homemade garlic dressing) gave me breath that could straighten hair. In other words, it was great.

"Our dressing is homemade," Chen emphasizes. "And so is the soup, and all the vegetables are fresh every day."

Café Calypso makes some mighty coffee drinks, too, along with custom shakes. And there's even chocolate milk.

"By summer, we'd like to add a couple of dishes of our own creation—maybe something Chinese because of our heritage," says Chen. "But nothing is going to be eliminated because everything sells well. People like what we have here. That's why they come. It's tradition, you know?"

Café Calypso, located at 114 Avenida del Mar, Ste. 4, San Clemente, is open daily, 6 a.m.-4 p.m. in the winter; 6 a.m.-7 p.m. in the summer. (949) 366-9386. No alcohol. Lunch for two, $10, excluding drinks. American Express accepted.
 
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