A popular Washington, D.C., tapas restaurant has announced plans to open a Charleston location at 122 Spring St., just four blocks west of the forthcoming Malagon, a Spanish café from the Chez Nous team. But Estadio’s owner Max Kuller has experience with nearby competition.
“When we opened Estadio, we talked to Jose Andres, both out of respect and knowing how much he had to share,” Kuller says of the award-winning chef, who had been operating Jaleo for 17 years when Kuller’s family in 2010 launched Estadio just two neighborhoods over.
“He said, ‘I will help you. DC needs more Spanish cuisine.’” Kuller continues. “So one of the roles Estadio DC has played is to become a place that gets people excited about Spanish food and Spanish wine. And that’s something I’m really excited about growing here.”
Kuller will have help from chef Alex Lira, formerly of Bar Normandy, where Kuller was a regular customer.
“I thought Alex had a real Spanish sensibility,” says Kuller, who has been visiting Charleston since 2010 and looking for a way to extend his stays. “He wasn’t muddying flavors.”
A potato salad seasoned with espelette persuaded Kuller that Lira, who had already become a personal friend, ought to helm Estadio Charleston’s kitchen.
Estadio DC is a standing favorite of critics and diners: When Washingtonian this year ranked it as the city’s 35th best restaurant, the magazine cited Estadio’s “consistency and deliciousness,” exemplified by dishes such as “toasts with foie gras scrambled eggs and truffle butter, salt-cod crudo, and sweet Galician-style scallops and trumpet mushrooms.”
While the dishes at Estadio Charleston won’t diverge in style or theme from what’s served in Washington, D.C., Kuller says the Lowcountry will provide “even greater opportunities to celebrate local ingredients in our Spanish framework.” Additionally, he and Lira are planning to devote a portion of the Charleston menu to rice.
“Carolina Gold wouldn’t be a natural plug-and-play for paella, but there’s such a rice tradition in Spain,” Kuller says. He’s looking into planting long-grain Bomba rice here.
Soon after Estadio DC opened, there was talk of replicating the restaurant in suburban D.C. Yet Kuller was skeptical, arguing that another location in the metro DC area could dilute the Estadio brand. Plus, Kuller didn’t want to spend time in the suburbs.
“I never wanted to do a second one unless it was a place I wanted to be,” Kuller says. “I already love the community and feel at home here.”
In addition to Estadio, Kuller’s late father, Mark Kuller, opened Proof, Doi Moi and 2 Birds, 1 Stone. Following Kuller’s death in 2014, Max Kuller arranged share swaps with relatives to gain a controlling interest in Estadio, keeping an eye on Charleston.
Although Charleston has proved a challenge for some restaurateurs successful in other cities, Kuller says smart design and clarity of purpose should work in Estadio Charleston’s favor.
“Our goal is very specific,” Kuller says. “I’m not doing this primarily for financial reasons: Our goal is to share our passion.”
Lira and Kuller next week leave on a research trip to Spain; Lira has never before visited the country. Estadio Charleston is projected to open later this year.