“We call it rustic industrial,” said restaurant co-owner Johan Engman of the ambiance of the third eatery in the local chain, which he established along with business partner Alberto Morreale in Pacific Beach in 2008.
Sitting underneath homemade artwork at the entrance of his Liberty Station restaurant at 2400 Historic Decatur Road, Suite 103, Engman notes, “We did pretty much all of it ourselves.”
Pointing to a framed piece made from two disassembled wine barrels, metal strips from which were used to create overhead chandeliers, Engman said, “We were trying to be a little creative,” which is obvious looking around.
Chalkboards lining the interior of Liberty Station Fig Tree bear some of Engman’s favorite sayings like, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
“I love it here,” said Engman of his retail space in a courtyard of the former Naval base, seating 40 people inside and 60 outside on the patio.
Engman said the former base’s ongoing redevelopment is creating a “big buzz,” attracting business for him. It doesn’t hurt that there’s lots of office space nearby, furnishing a nearly inexhaustible supply of hungry Fig Tree patrons.
“People don’t realize there’s close to 400,000 square feet of office space in Liberty Station,” Engman said.
Engman is as grassroots as the name of his restaurant implies. He said he’s been in the restaurant biz all his life, working since his teens as a waiter and busser.
“I opened my first restaurant when I was 27 on a shoestring budget using plastic chairs and tables,” Engman said, noting his idea was to capitalize on breakfast and using creative décor and an equally inventive menu.
“We didn’t want to do the greasy spoon thing,” he said. “We wanted to do more high-quality food.”
Engman said Fig Tree uses local food sources, like a family ranch in Ramona that supplies the restaurant’s eggs.
“You can really taste the difference,” he said, adding he’s benefited “tenfold” from using local food sources.
Fig Tree is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for breakfast, and for dinner from 4 to
More than just the menu at the eatery changes for dinner.
“We like to think in the evening that we become more of a wine bar/sit-down restaurant,” Engman said. “We have a good amount of eclectic, affordable wines coming from Spain and Argentina or elsewhere in South America.”
Fig Tree’s dinner menu is moderately priced.
“There’s nothing over $20,” said Engman, noting the key to both his breakfast and dinner menus is adding that little extra culinary “twist.”
“We have a breakfast item we call sushi with sautéed eggs and rice with man candy — thick-cut bacon marinated and baked in brown sugar,” he said. “We’ve got a meat loaf hash.”
Engman said Fig Tree also has a wide assortment of about 30 gluten-free items, including French toast, on the menu.
“It’s important to be innovative and try to stay ahead of the trends,” he said. “Instead of stagnating, you always need to be reinventing yourself.”
The restaurant’s name came about in a surprising way.
“Our original location in Pacific Beach was surrounded by ficus trees, but I didn’t feel Ficus Tree Café had a good ring to it,” said Engman. “So I planted five or six fig trees and called it the Fig Tree Café.”
The restaurant features daily specials. One recent weekday, the specials were New Zealand rack of lamb, pan-seared yellowtail and fresh fettuccini tossed with salmon and a cherry tomato cream sauce. Sunday brunch is the biggest meal, with lots of patrons coming in after services at The Rock Church.
For more information, visit www.figtreeeatery.com.