When Tim and Deeana Bruce opened Calliope Cafe in January, they were wagering that sandwiches could fill a niche in an economy where lots of fine-dining establishments were taking hits. “It seems pretty silly, but sandwiches are something different,” says Tim. They painted the walls a giddy orange with chartreuse and yellow trim and made up a menu of upscale melts, clubs, and wraps.

“The sandwich had its heyday in the 50s, but it goes back to Europe, where workers tucked a pastry in their back pockets for lunch,” says Tim, who has a degree from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. “Delicatessens are great, but the bread is cold, and the cheese is mostly cold. Americans like hot sandwiches.” He toasts his breads, grills the tortillas for his wraps, and offers four kinds of grinders. He’s also raised the bar when it comes to condiments. The fresh-grilled salmon club on toasted sourdough and the pit ham and Brie on hot challah are both laced with mustard dill aioli. The turkey avocado club is topped with chipotle mayo.

Tim used to be the executive chef at Nick & Tony’s Italian chophouse, which baked 250 loaves of bread a day. At Calliope he offers six kinds, including a sandwich-size tomato focaccia–originally commissioned from Biondillo Bakery, which now also sells it to other customers. He believes “specials should be special,” rustling up creations such as a jerk chicken wrap on a green chili tortilla with pineapple black bean relish or a sauerbraten pork loin sandwich with caramelized cabbage and mustard sauce.

Imagination and little touches make all the difference. Meats–including bone-in turkey breast and the sauerbraten for the special–are roasted in-house. The meat loaf is homemade. Turkey pastrami gives a twist to the Reuben. Tuna and chicken salads have onion, celery, and carrots for texture and crunch, not just pickle relish. There are four salads–and salad specials too, such as breaded coconut shrimp with mandarin oranges served over mixed greens. The Asian veggie tofu wrap and the portobello avocado wrap cater to vegetarians, while the chorizo huevos wrap honors Hispanic cuisine.

With a menu of 15 sandwiches, a delivery service, and a lean staff of “five or six,” Tim says, “it’s not totally about the food. A beautiful dish may take 5 hands to make and 15 minutes, but you have 7 minutes to get it done. Not everyone can be Charlie Trotter.” As new business owners, the Bruces are committed to a life that includes having the grease trap emptied at $100 a pop, plus garbage disposal, alarm systems, and payroll and litter taxes.

The couple relies on past experience to maintain their balance. Deeana–who runs Calliope on Sundays and does the books–has managed bars and restaurants at resorts in Arizona, Utah, and Montana. Tim used to work for the Levy Restaurants special events kitchen, where he put in 16-hour days catering weddings, Field Museum events, and 65 Wrigley Field skyboxes. He’s also worked at Widow Newton’s Tavern, Blue Point Oyster Bar, and Goose Island. He says he tries to follow the advice of an early mentor who told him since chefs invariably move around, always go someplace different.

The Bruces opened Calliope, moved in upstairs, and had daughter McKenna Nicole all within a three-week period. “Moving was probably the worst part of it all, because I was pregnant,” says Deeana. While Tim focused on opening the restaurant, she handled most of the move, cleaning carpets, washing walls, and getting situated. She was also the brains–and part of the brawn–behind the restaurant’s decor. “I was big as a house and painting the walls,” she says. All the tables and chairs were hand painted by the couple themselves in a rainbow of colors. Deeana also stenciled the chairs, sewed the seat cushions, and framed the poems hanging on the walls.

Today, with Tim working 11-hour days seven days a week, family time occurs during work hours. The baby often sits in her car seat in the back as homemade potato chips fry or gingered carrot and cauliflower soup simmers on the stove. “Our regulars call her the sandwich baby,” says Tim.

Anything could happen down the line, they say, including more Calliopes or a larger restaurant. After all, Calliope Cafe is named for two forces where evanescence reigns–the musical instrument and the Greek muse of poetry.

“It’s a lot of fun to decide on everything for yourself. The specials are our idea. The walls are our idea. I think we do great things together,” says Deeana.

Calliope Cafe is at 2826 N. Lincoln, 773-528-8055.

The Dish

Partners Lezlie Keebler, Louis J. Grant III, and Daniel Cummins are renovating Biggs at 1150 N. Dearborn, which will reopen in late July as Biggs Steak, Seafood, and Wine Bar.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.