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“I’ve been watching for years,” laughs Dave Axelrod, the bar manger of soon-to-open Spring Street tapas spot Estadio. Axelrod comes fresh from the bar at neighboring restaurant Xiao Bao Biscuit.
“I was a big fan of Dave’s energy at Xiao Bao,” says Estadio owner Max Kuller. “He has a super great presence and we will build a hopefully really vibrant strong bar scene with his charisma and personality to support it.”
Kuller, who opened Estadio’s D.C. flagship in 2010, has carefully curated his Charleston management team — comprised entirely of industry vets — and says they’re getting very close to opening, aiming for “around Oct. 10.”
In addition to Axelrod, Kuller has Brandon Underwood (most recently of Renzo) serving as GM, former Bar Normandy and The Lot chef Alex Lira in the kitchen, and Lowcountry newcomer (but industry lifer) Tom Verhey serving as assistant GM. Adam Bernbach serves as bar director for both locations.
When we visit the restaurant in mid-September, everything is coming together inside the new building on Spring. The dining room’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows look out onto the street, “the fishbowl theater,” Kuller calls it, similar to the design of their D.C. location.
“It’s served us well in D.C. and we anticipate the neighborhood to continue to grow and be full of life,” says Kuller.
Verhey, who opened Chicago bar Pops for Champagne in 1982, was looking to expand that brand in the nation’s capital in the early 2010s. While he ultimately decided that running two operations hundreds of miles away would not be viable (or very fun), in the process of looking for an adequate D.C. location, “I went to Estadio a number of times.” He didn’t meet Kuller then, but he says he was impressed with the restaurant. Plus, “I have a real appreciation for Spain, especially their food and beverage.”
Verhey sold Pops in Nov. 2018, but wasn’t ready to give up the industry. After officially relocating to Charleston, Verhey says he read that Estadio was coming to the Holy City. “It took me a while to find your correct email,” he laughs, nodding at Kuller. “But I finally got a hold of him and said ‘this is who I am, this is what I’ve done, if you’re thinking about wanting to discuss the matter further, I’d love to talk to you.'”
They talked, and Kuller brought him on. “I feel that Estadio can succeed tremendously here,” says Verhey. “The space is the right size, the location is absolutely the right place.”
It’s a location, though, that happens to be located just a few blocks down from another new Spring Street tapas restaurant, Malagon. When the team is asked whether they think the closeness will be a boon or a bane, they all agree that there’s room for mas tapas.
“We’ve all been to Malagon and enjoyed our time there,” says Kuller. “What I’ve said since the beginning is Spain is a very supportive, convivial culture. It benefits from everyone being friends and everyone supporting their neighbors and adding to that culture. Everyone has their own takes on things, their own specialties and reflections of their personalities.”
On the surface, Malagon has a much smaller footprint than Estadio — “It was a sandwich joint, they were forced to build their concept in an existing space,” notes Axelrod. Whereas the Fanny and Patrick Panella joint is open for lunch and dinner with a retail wall and a focus on wine and beer, Estadio Charleston will be open only for dinner with a full bar, focusing on wine, spirits, and beer.
[content-1] “For us the bar has to be at the center of our operation,” says Kuller. And it is, quite literally, in the center of the building, with a raging bull mural painted on tile facing out to those who belly up. “Certainly when you come in here we want the party to start right away.”
Estadio’s kitchen and bar will be open from 4-10 p.m., seven days a week. Kuller says that he foresees the restaurant serving many different purposes. There could be the pre-dinner crowd who find a place at the bar area, chef’s counter, or communal table ordering up Porrons and pinxtas. Or maybe it will “build into something else” like a three hour meal with “many bottles of wine and a fine dining experience,” with guests coursing out their evening jamon crouquetas followed by king mackeral crudo followed by seafood paella.
Underwood, who has spent a fair amount of time traversing the fine country of Espana, agrees that “putting the bar in the center is important, that’s the center of culture in Spain.”
And not because all Spaniards are booze hounds — “it’s not like going to a bar anywhere else,” says Underwood. “You can have a coffee or a Coca Cola, whatever you want, no judgment, you can stay for hours or for a quick bite and conversation. That’s the important thing — it’s really hard to transport from Spain to here, but having access to all those things is a good start.”
Keep up to date with Estadio Charleston’s official opening by following them on Instagram.