Restaurateur was not a title Max Kuller aspired to as a child. He studied art at Brown University, imagining a career as an artist. But fate intervened in the form of artists-turned-restaurateurs Johanne Killeen and George Germon, owners of the legendary Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island. “The Al Forno training process was intense,” Kuller says. “It took a couple of months to become a server. But it was a really formative experience.” Al Forno gave him the tools and the passion, but it was his father Mark’s “mid-life crisis” that landed him in the restaurant business for good. The father and son opened three hugely successful restaurants in the Washington, DC, area together, including the Spanish taperia Estadio. And although he lost his father to pancreatic cancer in 2014, Kuller continues to grow their culinary legacy, opening a second Estadio in Charleston’s Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood with chef Alex Lira at the helm last fall.
Aside from its reputation as one of the country’s best food cities, what about Charleston compelled you to expand Estadio south?
There are so many things I love about Charleston. The friendliness, the beauty, but especially the sense of community. There is something really, really amazing about this community. The day we opened for business so many of our local neighbors reached out—posting on their own Instagram accounts, inviting our whole staff in for free drinks, dropping off baked goods.
What do you appreciate most about the neighborhood?
For me, I think one of the most exciting things about this neighborhood—versus some other pockets of the city—is that the development is so grassroots and homegrown. The restaurants are all independently owned and feel very much like passion projects. There’s a lot of really cool artistic energy here.
How is Estadio Charleston different from your original DC location?
Outside of a couple desserts, there’s nothing on the two menus that’s identical. The pintxos [in Charleston], for example, are constantly rotating, whereas in DC, we have a standard roster. We do a nightly paella in Charleston, and in DC it’s a once-a-week thing. And all our seafood is coming right out of the local waters. Whatever fish Alex is getting in that day is what he’s going to build the dish around. The space is also less than half the size of DC. It’s very intimate.
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