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Restaurateur Mark Kuller’s Third Course
Comments () | Published September 12, 2013

Of all the taunts Mark endured over the years from Glen, the one that stung him was “Snagglepuss”—the kind of viciously affectionate name brothers all over the world call one another. He had large, awkward teeth. He knew he did. But what was he supposed to do about it? They were his teeth.

Well, now he decided to use some of that windfall from his practice he’d been spending on wine to get them fixed. He made an effort to dress better, too, apart from the suits he wore on the job. He ditched the nerd glasses he had worn since high school and got a pair of stylish frames. And he resolved to lose weight, disgusted with the 300-plus pounds he toted around. Turkey sandwiches became a staple of his diet. “You look like a war-relief victim,” Glen had told him, scolding him for being too “spartan” when they sat down together to eat. After Glen’s death, he renewed his vow to keep the weight off. Four hundred pounds—with his love of food and drink and his large frame, it could easily happen to him.

These cosmetic changes foreshadowed the deeper, foundational changes to come. The dismantling of his life began with his divorce in 2003. Four years later, he gave up his partnership in the firm.

Kuller’s Empire

A look at his three DC hot spots.

PROOF

Opened: 2007. Cuisine: Modern American. Neighborhood: Penn Quarter. Decor: Walls of wine bottles, low lighting, handcrafted pewter bar. Signature dishes: Beef pho terrine, spicy meatballs with goat-cheese agnolotti, crispy shrimp burger with jalapeño and pickled daikon. Sightings: Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, Phil Chenier.

ESTADIO

Opened: 2010. Cuisine: Spanish. Neighborhood: Logan Circle. Decor: 19th-century tile, vintage soccer on TV, hams hanging over the bar. Signature dishes: Pintxo of chorizo, Manchego, and pistachio-crusted quince; spice-grilled chicken with cabbage slaw, rice, and salsa loca; Manchego cheesecake. Sightings: Giada De Laurentiis, Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin Bacon.

DOI MOI

Opened: August. Cuisine: Contemporary Southeast Asian. Neighborhood: Logan Circle. Decor: Clean and contemporary.

The intervening years alternated between intense introspection and reckless pleasure-seeking. Already a passionate recreational diner and a collector of fine wine—$30,000 worth of bottles sat in unopened boxes at his office at King & Spalding and later McKee Nelson, where he had followed his friend and mentor, Bill McKee—he now transformed himself into a bon vivant. He bought a fast car, a gray Porsche 911 Cabriolet. And began chasing women.

His younger brother became his counsel. “He didn’t have a lot of emotional maturity,” Jason says. “It was almost like he was in high school—a tall, geeky math nerd. Some of our conversations at that time were almost comical. He was so new to the dating scene.”

Kuller applied himself, though, the way he applied himself to everything else. He was determined to get better at it. Two dates in one day, sometimes three.

“I was,” he says, “a total slut.”

Among the many women he pursued, one stood out. Kristin Connor. Tall, blond, striking, and 20-plus years his junior. Who could have dreamed a nerd would be keeping company with a shiksa goddess like this? What would Millie have thought? He knew what Sol would have thought.

He fell for her. Fell hard.

He was devastated when she moved back to Miami in 2005 to be with her family.

“Here was this solid man who was very driven and knew what he wanted out of life,” Connor says of that time. “And here I was, in between jobs, conflicted, kind of lost. I needed to go off and discover what I could do on my own.”

For months after, he texted her: You changed your mind, right? You’re coming back.

Two years after they broke up, Connor was washing her car and discovered, tucked into the visor, a letter from Kuller.

He understood why she needed to leave. He hoped that one day she would find her way back to him.

As it turned out, he hadn’t driven down and slipped it in there—he’d planted the letter there before she’d left. It just felt as if he had.

• • •

The grand plan hadn’t been to give up the law practice but to argue cases and run a restaurant at the same time. But the plan was too grand. Kuller was halfway into the build-out of Proof, in 2007, when he realized he couldn’t do both.

So this was it, then. He’d become a restaurateur.

He would give himself to the new business the same way he’d given himself to the old. No detail was too small, no aspect of the business beneath him. He would turn himself into an expert in HVAC design, wiring, and plumbing.

Assembling a staff—this was the fun part. He already was well acquainted with many general managers and chefs, having befriended leading names in the industry over the years as a self-styled kingpin on the dining scene. According to Bill McKee, if he or his friends couldn’t get a table at a hot restaurant—whether in DC or anywhere else in the country—they would call Kuller: “Mark would make it happen. He knew all the chefs, all the maître d’s.”

Michael James, the former GM at downtown DC’s Teatro Goldoni, remembered Kuller well from his days at McKee Nelson, whose offices were a few blocks from the restaurant. James had a name for him—“the 9:55 guy,” the big, blustery customer who waltzed in the door five minutes before closing and ordered things off the menu.

Kuller had dropped many hints over the years, trying to gauge James’s interest in coming to work for him. One day in 2006 at a back-yard pool party, he asked James to think about it.

No way, James said.

Come on, Kuller persisted.

I know you—you’re a jerk. No way.

But the lawyer was nothing if not persuasive. He not only reeled in James, one of the most respected GMs on the scene, but also Haidar Karoum—then a promising young chef from Nora Pouillon’s since-closed Asia Nora—and a group of wine-and-spirits professionals, including Sebastian Zutant and Adam Bernbach, who helped ignite the local craft-cocktail movement.

Kuller’s directive to his designer, Griz Dwight, and his staff was a typically bracing mix of the suave and the street-smart. To be the city’s premier wine bar. To appeal equally to oldsters, like his mentor McKee, and hot young models. To be a style leader in a city of—he wasn’t afraid to say it—ugly, dull, conservative restaurants.

And, not least, to be the kind of place where he wouldn’t have to worry about saying “fuck” out loud.

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  • Xxx

    huu, thank you for your anti-Semitism!

  • Emily

    the real question is: does he want to open a bakery?

  • huu

    After years reading the Washingtonian Food and Wine sections, blogs and articles, It seems to me if you are not Jewish you will never benefit the favors of Todd Kliman
    Maybe, to be succesful half of Washington restaurants should convert

  • huu

    jh

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Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 09/12/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles