“It was like I was in my grandmother’s kitchen.”
Barcelona native and now Greenville-based chef Daniel López was unable to attend his late grandmother’s funeral in Spain during the Christmas holidays. But on a January evening, sitting at the newly opened Estadio bar in Charleston, South Carolina, the first pintxos (bite-size dishes) sent out from the kitchen transported him back to hers. “It’s the simplicity of it,” he says.
López, who owns Time to Taste Catering, says a fierce dedication to micro-seasonality gives Spanish cooks the ability to use the freshest produce and proteins at peak flavor, which then require nothing more than enhancement through cooking technique or salt. That, and communal dining, are the hallmarks of Spanish cuisine.
It’s a philosophy Charleston chef Alex Lira, 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast, was already known for at his former restaurant, Bar Normandy. He opened Estadio with Washington, D.C., restaurateur Max Kuller in Charleston’s Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood in late 2019.
The result is a merging of Southern-sourced ingredients with the centuries-old traditional Spanish philosophy that Lira and Kuller say is reflective of the cuisine found in coastal San Sebastián specifically, with the beverage program featuring gin and craft tonics telling a story about contemporary Spain.
Kuller’s nine trips to Spain allowed him to experience and consequently want to replicate what he calls the morning, noon, and night gin-and-tonic culture. Estadio also offers a significant number of sherry options and Spanish wines.
Estadio is the sister restaurant of the 10-year-old Estadio DC and was the second Spanish restaurant to open on the same street in Charleston within the same calendar year. From the owners of Chez Nous, Malagón Mercado y Tapería opened closer to Charleston’s bustling King Street in the spring of 2019. While sharing some menu similarities, the two Spanish restaurants are opposites in style, beverage focus, and atmosphere, with Malagón’s candle-lit space and cozy, intimate environment contrasting with Estadio’s vivid tile walls, soaring ceilings, and standing community bar tables where “pass the porrón” is a phrase commonly repeated between strangers as the traditional wine pitcher is passed from person to person around the table. “We want it to feel like a party,” Lira says. “It’s fresh and new every day.”
Both options provide a Spanish cultural experience designed to transport diners thousands of miles away. Now, as restrictions are lifted, carefully spaced patio seating, first, and eventual indoor dining will allow these restaurants—previously designed for guests to be in close proximity to one another—to continue to offer an escape via cuisine for would-be travelers grounded until 2021.
Meanwhile, two Spanish restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina, are also working to bring an authentic dining experience to guests who are now driving to vacation destinations rather than flying.
“There is something great about being able to pretend that you are in another country for a moment, to close your eyes, take a spoonful of gazpacho, and think about where you might be when that’s happening,” says the James Beard Award–nominated chef Katie Button of Cúrate.
Button and her husband, Félix Meana, launched La Bodega de Cúrate in May in response to the changing operational needs of the highly communal dining experience that draws from Button’s time with celebrated chef and humanitarian José Andrés in D.C. and at the now-closed elBulli in Spain.
La Bodega features Cúrate’s favorite dishes to take home, such as Tortilla Española and Croquetas de Pollo, along with imported charcuterie, sherry, vermouth, and wine. Button says La Bodega will continue to offer the take-out service even once Cúrate is back to full capacity.
Nearby, in a heavily wooded and semi-secluded area of Asheville, Forestry Camp by Burial Beer Co. opened its doors to diners last September, inviting them to participate in a fully communal, strangers-meeting-strangers, Spanish-dining environment based on Basque-region cuisine.
Developed by another James Beard nominee, Chef Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24, the menu was designed to complement a large rustic open space with multiple communal tables and to guide diners into a more adventurous experience, similar to how brewery customers would order a beer flight, says Tim Gormley, head of hospitality for Burial Beer Co. and Forestry Camp Bar & Restaurant. “That concept of walking in and being like, ‘You guys show me what you’re all about,’ there’s a lot of accidental parallels with that sort of thinking with what we wanted Forestry Camp to be,” he says.
Without compromising authenticity or quality, Gormley notes that outdoor dining will now be the post-take-out focus along with highlighting the whole-animal butchery skills of chef de cuisine JT DeBrie via housemade charcuterie.
“We’ll remove the communal-eating element out of it but still have pinxtos and tapas. We’re not going to lose touch with that,” he says.