Around the time Emilio Peiro signed the lease on his new Short Pump restaurant in October 2008, the economy was starting to falter. Banks were cutting credit lines. He was confident that the authentic Spanish restaurant would draw customers, he says. "The worry was, ‘How am I going to open?' " With help from friends who contributed money and labor, Emilio's Restaurante Español (200 Towne Center West Blvd.,360-8080) fired up its paella burners on July 10, 2009. It's the third Richmond-area Emilio's, but the fifth restaurant that Peiro has opened.
Love is what initially brought him to Virginia. The native of Spain's Valencia region crossed the ocean in 1984 to visit a girl in Charlottesville and decided to stay. A professional soccer player in Spain, he became an assistant soccer coach at the University of Virginia and opened his first restaurant, La Barraca, in 1987. He sold it when he moved back to Spain in 1991 in time for the '92 Olympics, but he partnered with one of his brothers to open another restaurant in his hometown of Sueca. After getting his professional soccer-coaching license, Peiro returned to Virginia in 1999 and became assistant director of coaching with the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club.
He missed cooking, though. When an opportunity arose to buy a restaurant, he opened the first Emilio's in 2003 at Broad and Meadow streets. He stepped down from his coaching job in 2007 after debuting Emilio's Woodlake. The Emilio's group now includes business partners Chad Stambaugh and Yvonne Zienkiewicz. All three restaurants feature live music, such as jazz, flamenco and classical guitar.
When designing the Short Pump location, Peiro (with help from his friend Giuseppe Scafidi) drew inspiration from Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, incorporating curved, mosaic-decorated benches reminiscent of the Guell Park in Barcelona. The design also spotlights Peiro's signature dish by including an open paella-making station (shown above). The most popular variety, Paella Mixta, includes chicken, seafood, vegetables and rice with a saffron broth. The newest Emilio's also features a retail area with Spanish ceramics, paella kits and specialty foods.
Although he has no immediate plans for additional restaurants, Peiro is open to the idea. "If people are interested in investing in my concept, it could go national," he says. "My food is as good as anybody's."