As co-owner of the laid-back eatery Bar George and executive chef at tapas spot Estadio, the roguish Alex Lira delivers serious food with good humor and antic shenanigans
CM: When did you become interested in food?
AL: In high school, I was always the guy who made omelets at whoever’s house we were crashing in the wee hours after someone went out and got six dozen eggs from the gas station. I worked the cash register at a burger joint, and the cook made flipping burgers look super cool. My parents were both highly educated, and there was an obligation to get at least some sort of degree, so I earned my associate’s in culinary arts. From there, I went to New York and ended up working under Tom Colicchio, Damon Wise, and Andrew Tarlow.
CM: How did you become executive chef at Estadio?
AL: Max Kuller owns the original Estadio in DC. He’s a big wine guy, and we became friends at Bar Normandy, where he used to be a regular. When Bar Normandy closed, Max took me to Spain with the prospect of opening a second Estadio in Charleston. I wasn’t planning on saying yes, but what a fool I would be to say no to a trip to Spain! We became best buddies on that trip, ate amazing food, had a blast, and came to an agreement to do this, even knowing that I would be opening Bar George.
CM: What’s on tap for you?
AL: I’m splitting my time between Estadio and Bar George, where we recently rolled out a simple lunch menu. I’m also toying with the idea of a deli and possibly a bodega-type concept nearby. A deli is something Charleston has been super hungry for, no pun intended.
CM: Why the mash-up of hot dogs, oysters, and cocktails at Bar George?
AL: There’s a nostalgic element to it—hot dogs are something I grew up with. My uncle, who is the “George” of Bar George, ran a hot dog stand in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, starting in the 1930s, just an open window with bench seating. You’d find all walks of life there—businessmen, doctors, and lawyers who casually threw their ties over their shoulders to eat alongside construction workers who were literally building the city around them. There’s a beauty in bringing together two things that wouldn’t otherwise mix. And selfishly, these are the things that I really enjoy making and eating. Chili dogs and oysters—that’s my perfect meal in a nutshell.
CM: What creative solutions helped Bar George through this past year?
AL: We’re trying to stay relevant with positivity. Car George is a great representation of that. When dining rooms were closed, Joey [Goetz] and I literally had nothing to do. So we decided to give people restaurant service at their houses. We have two stupidly weird cars—an El Camino-esque little one with a small engine that we call “Danny Devito” and a big black ’78 Ranchero we dubbed “Carnold Schwarzenegger.” And you have the cast of Twins! Clients message us
@cargeorgechs on Instagram, and we show up with these 1940s Hungarian baby tubs that we fill up with ice and oysters, lobster sliders, caviar—anything cold and delicious.
CM: Pandemic or not, what keeps you going in this business?
AL: My mortgage. Restaurants are such a cool industry; there’s never a dull moment. My father likes to remind me how lucky I am, because rain or shine, I enjoy my job. I can’t imagine being in a cubicle all day. That’s just not how my brain works.