It’s travel season, and if you’re like me, you’re seeing multiple photos of your friends smiling, wine in hand, with various European cafe scenes in the back. You know the kind of cafes I mean: those working the front of house are related to the back of house, and there might even be a child handing you a menu or polishing silverware while sitting on a stool beside grandma. The menus at these cafes are almost always local specialties, the diners often neighbors, and the wine pours usually generous.
Estadio Charleston, located on a busy commercial corridor in Charleston, is an unusual place to find such a familial vibe that points to those back alleyways of the Old World. Nevertheless, spend any time at this Lowcountry tapas restaurant, and it’s hard to shake that family feeling.
The staff seems to be generally happy working alongside one another. There are plenty of local specialties on a menu that follows the traditional tapas style of shareable plates. Walk-ins are welcome alongside reservations. The gintonics are well-made and the wines are often passed via porron.
Or it could be the baby snuggled in her Bjorn carrier strapped to the chef running expo that gives you a hint…
That’s right, chef Alex Eaton brings her 10-month old daughter, Adelaide, to work at Estadio on the regular, and even occasionally pops a bite of blanched asparagus into her mouth or lets her try a sliver of boquerones, which she loves.
“There was never a question whether I could bring her,” Eaton says. “It all started from a place of open communication with Max [Kuller, the owner] and Brandon [Underwood, the GM] that while my life might be shifting with motherhood, I could still be a strong asset for the restaurant as executive chef.”
The staff has rallied around her and Adelaide. It’s easy to catch one of the Estadio team members commenting on Adelaide’s new tooth, or smiling or winking at her as they pass her and her mom in the normal flow of service. And sous chef Matthew Dion has stepped up with more kitchen leadership and even a few items on the current menu.
The familiarity of the staff and its style extends to the larger Charleston culinary community, too, since both Eaton and Dion are back-of-house alumni at The Ordinary, and Brandon Underwood is a familiar face in the community from various stints around town, including Bar Normandy and Renzo.
All that Charleston experience melds with Spanish sensibility and local ingredients for a menu that plays the Spanish favorites — from tortilla espanola to gambas — with a Southern accent. That is something opening chef Alex Lira set the tone with when he helmed the Estadio kitchen, but an idea that Eaton is making her own.
Originally from the Charlotte area, Eaton explains that when she moved to Charleston to work at The Ordinary, it really sent her “into a crash course in seasonality and local sourcing.” And the skilled simplicity and restraint at that celebrated restaurant definitely show up at Estadio, too, where Eaton allows expert sourcing to lead her menu, including fresh catch brought in by Abundant Seafood, vegetables grown by Sean Murray of the Green Heart Project, and Storey Farms eggs, which show up in a variety of dishes.
“Every restaurant, every town, and even every grandma in Spain has their version of something such as a tortilla espanola, just like we in the South have with our mac-and-cheese,” the chef says. “So I feel like the most ‘authentic’ way to do Spanish food in Charleston is to treat the city like a neighborhood in Spain. That’s true to the Spanish culinary spirit.”
So the menu changes often, which, along with the familiar staff and the draw of seeing Adelaide eat nasturtium petals (her current favorite), brings the regulars back, well, regularly. In a town where there is more and more a divide between “local” and “tourist” restaurants, I rarely visit Estadio without seeing someone I know.
That’s high praise enough in Charleston where good food is around every corner, but I must also praise the warm glow of a second gintonic, a plate of grilled SC shrimp skewers with salsa verde alongside some Txistorra Pigs in a Blanket, as well as not feeling jealous of all those European cafe snapshots as I enjoy the staff enjoying Estadio too. Who knows, I might even take a selfie.