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Estadio's Mark Kuller Reflects On A Successful First Year

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Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[R. Lopez, 7/12]

Anticipation was high when Estadio opened in Logan Circle last year. Just three years prior, owner Mark Kuller had opened up Proof in Penn Quarter, praised for a well-cultivated wine list and chef Haidar Karoum's culinary chops. With the pair working together again — this time on a Spanish small plates concept — the hype was considerable. In the year that followed, Estadio established itself not just as a critical darling, but also as a hotspot where people were willing to wait hours for a table. We sat down with Kuller to talk about Estadio's first year and the road ahead.

Could you tell me how the concept came about?
Haidar and I are big fans of Spanish food. And we wanted to do a second project that was very different from Proof. We talked a little bit about going the Italian route, the Spanish route, the Asian route. But like anything else, when you see the location, the concept is in part defined by the location and the space. And then we stumbled on this space. As soon as we saw it, there was no question it was going to be a Spanish restaurant. And shortly after that we negotiated the lease. It was a bear to negotiate the lease, mostly because it was a residential building and I was dealing with a board. There's a shaft that goes through the roof and we needed them to agree to that. And so in order for them to agree to that, they extracted a 26-page good neighbor agreement that took months and months to negotiate. Among other things, limiting my ability to have outdoor dining, the hours... everything you can imagine under the sun that would be of concern to residents.

It took us a little more than four months, about 18 weeks, to build the place out. And my builders did a great job. They came in on time, they came in on budget. My architect is the best there is. For me, the most fun part is the design stuff and picking out the furniture. Haidar and I had seen chairs like this in a tapas bar in Madrid and I took a picture of them, found the guy in Miami who had them fabricated in Colombia. The tiles I found in a place that reclaims tiles from Spanish and Italian homes. They're from 1880. They're signed, every one, on the back. These aren't copies, these are vintage tiles.

The menu, Haidar and I traveled for two weeks throughout a good portion of the country and visited a half a dozen restaurants a day. And then Haidar wrote the menu up and we worked on that. And it's been a great ride. The restaurant was packed from day one. I was kidding [my publicist] Amber, I said, "Well, it took a year. We've been the hottest restaurant in town for a year. Now I think Graffiato is the hottest restaurant in town." But a year is a good run. So I'm very happy with that. It's been very rewarding. Proof is always going to be my first-born and my first love. I just feel enveloped there and warm and obviously it's not as frenetic there. But I'm very proud of this restaurant. I think we nailed it on every front: the food, the decor, the energy level. It's everything that I could possibly want. And, of course, the Rammy was just the cherry on top. It was nice to be acknowledged. And that's why I refused to get off the stage. I wanted to acknowledge the people who really made it happen. They needed to get their due whether people liked it or not.

And you got some really good reviews when you opened up, too. What was that like?
We did. Fortunately the major food critics in the city, Tom Sietsema and Todd Kliman, both really liked the restaurant. I think they do like the restaurant. We got three stars from the Washingtonian and 2.5 stars from the Post. It's a tribute to the guys working here. I think front of the house and back of the house really performed at a high level, especially for casual tapas, pinxtos-type restaurant. We're not pretending to be haute cuisine or tablecloth-type service, but I think our people are well-trained and they have passion and they take pride in what they're doing.

So what changes have been made over the last year? Did you learn any lessons?
Well, not many because I think the thing was well-executed and well-planned. One change we made was it became clear pretty quickly that Max [Kuller] was more than capable of running the wine program here. We've built our wine list up from a starting point of about 100 labels to about 250 labels. I think we have probably one of the top five Spanish wine lists in the United States. We've increased our offerings. We have a great bar manager. Adam [Bernbach] is a very creative guy and he's always tinkering around with new drinks and new flavors of slushito, playing around with the sangria. And we started lunch, which is a work in progress. I don't know if financially it's going to make sense, but we'll give it a year and see if the numbers justify it. I'll keep it if I can break even, but I'm not going to lose money on it. I'm not getting walk-ins from lawyers and bankers and lobbyists because they're not here. There's still development going on here and maybe it'll change. We'll see.

We already know you have not actually signed a lease anywhere...
I haven't signed a letter of intent. I'm hoping I will. There will be a third restaurant and maybe even a fourth at some point. I admire the restaurateurs in town who've opened restaurants and then opened new ones like it. Cava is a perfect example. They opened two, three, four more restaurants within a couple years. I could never do that. I admire their success. But I'm just one guy. I don't have partners. My plan was more like the Danny Meyer plan, which is you open a restaurant, it takes a year to get it to where you're happy with it and three years to get it where it really should be. We opened one in 2007 and we opened another one in 2010. I think we'll open another one maybe in 2013. And it'll be something different, something that'll challenge me.

I have three or four different ideas that I want to do. We obviously want to take advantage of Haidar's love for Asian food and the fact that I think there is deficiency in the city. I mean, if you look at a place like Kushi, there's a reason it's so successful. It fills a real gap: a hip, cool, Asian restaurant. But there's other things. I'd love to open a breakfast place. There's a place in New York called Kitchenette, they serve breakfast, lunch, dinner. It's a very homey neighborhood-type restaurant. I think something like that would do great in DC. I still think we need a good taqueria — I was going to build a taqueria in the space that El Centro is in and the landlord reneged on our deal the day of signing. I'm a big fan of Big Star in Chicago, Paul Kahan's taqueria. There's nothing like that here. I think something like that you need a big space in a funky neighborhood, parking, a drive-up window. So we're looking at stuff. Realtors come to us all the time now. One of the nice things about success is that builders come to you because they want you in their building. And, of course, I want to be in before I have to deal with the tenants. I don't want anymore good neighbor agreements.

How has it developed with the residents over the years?
It's been fine. By and large we've worked well together because I am really trying to be a good neighbor and trying to do the right thing and trying to respect the integrity of the building and the privacy and the livability of it. That said, we are in the middle of the city. You're not in Bethesda, you're not in Potomac. You bought a condo on 14th and P streets. This is a hub. If you go to New York City, there are thousands of restaurants in residential apartments. So it's not like this is some new concept.

What was the feel like here after the Rammy win and being named a James Beard Award semi-finalist?
The Beard semifinalist was really exciting. Just getting nominated for the Beard, we thought there was a chance we'd make the shortlist. But it's very hard for a restaurant that's not in the major markets because the Beard voters have to go to the restaurant in order to vote for it. I think Torrisi is a lovely restaurant, but that's a 16-seat restaurant. That should not be nominated for best new restaurant. It's a great place, but they don't have to do what restaurants serving hundreds of covers a night have to do at high-quality level. I thought ABC Kitchen was the best new restaurant of the year and a very deserving win. It was the best new restaurant I ate in last year. But there were others that could have been on that list that didn't make it other than us. So it's tough when you narrow it down to five. But just being on the list truly is an honor. It gives us something to shoot for next time.

And then, of course, the Rammys. We've gotten a lot of nominations. This year we had five between the two restaurants. Haidar, I keep hoping he gets recognized for his efforts at both restaurants. We won best wine list last year, which was sort of a no-brainer at Proof because we do have the best wine list. You can almost manipulate that because if you spend the money to get the best wine list, you can get the best wine list. But being the best restaurant with the best chef, that takes something other than that. So that was great winning it. But honestly — and I know it sounds trite — but the most important award is having people lined up and waiting an hour for a table. There are very few things in the world that I'll wait an hour for.

It's still really busy here. How have you seen the crowds change through the year?
It's honestly not changed that much. Obviously the first month it was zoo-like because of all the hype, hype, hype. You had people literally camped outside when we opened. But the number of covers we do aren't different than they were 11 months ago, 10 months ago. It's still as busy as it was and I expect it will stay that way.

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