Spero Bar opens in DC, serving Basque-inspired wood-fired seafood – Robb Report
This spring, chef Johnny Spero received a Michelin star for his tasting menu restaurant, Reverie, in Georgetown. As often after these events, reservations have become scarce at the Scandinavian and Japanese-inspired restaurant. And the timing was perfect – Spero was just weeks away from opening his second project, the highly anticipated Bar Spero in Washington, DC’s East End.
However, Bar Spero was going to be a departure from the three-hour intellectual experience at Reverie. Spero Bar was, well, a bar. Housed in a multi-story glass building, it was going to be lively, loud and bold, inspired by the cuisine of San Sebastian, just like Spero himself.
“It feels good to be able to tell more than one side of my story,” Spero told Robb Report about Bar Spero in July. “Yes, we have received a Michelin star and I do a tasting menu [at Reverie]. But I am more than that. I don’t define myself by a cooking style or an experience and I need to be able to express myself in different ways.
“I need this as much as I need the other [Reverie]. It completes me. »
Then, in mid-August, Reverie caught fire. The cause of the fire was unknown.
“Most importantly, everyone is safe,” Spero posted on Instagram at the time. “The fire and smoke damage is extensive and we will have to rebuild completely. Although it will take time, we are confident that we will come back even stronger than before.
Not only did he lose his newly-Michelin-starred restaurant, his first solo project, but Spero also lost all of his personal belongings he kept there – his collection of books, his knives, his cookbooks. And his wife, Alexis, was about to give birth to their third child. And there remained to think of the Bar Spero.
“It’s a strange feeling to sort through the rubble and rebuild one restaurant while bringing another to life,” Spero said on Instagram in early September. “One cannot exist without the other.”
Yet it had to.
The outpouring of support has been tremendous. Chef José Andrés welcomed the Reverie staff to the Minibar kitchen, where Spero had been the executive chef for years, so they could keep working. Spero kept his head down and his head held high, and on September 14, after understandable delays, he opened Bar Spero in the Capitol Crossing development.
The opening could be called a triumph given the circumstances, but Spero’s vision has always been to start fresh at Bar Spero. It is not an à la carte Reverie, although obviously from the same thoughtful and ambitious spirit; it’s a “dynamically different restaurant,” as Spero calls it, and it’s been in the works since 2020.
The wood-fired, seafood-focused concept was inspired by Spero’s experience in Mugaritz, Basque Country, in his late twenties. (The chef also spent time working at Noma.) On his one night off a week, he would walk around downtown San Sebastian and eat steak and tomato salads and drink Pacharán ( sloe liqueur) in high-energy “bars” until 3 a.m.
“Man, I’m smiling thinking about it now,” he said. “I want to bring that feeling, that emotional connection, here. It is less of a style of food; I will never say that I cook Spanish food. But that open fire cooking, that celebration of where you’re from and where you are, the liveliness of that… If you can’t laugh when you’re having dinner, there’s something wrong.
Bar Spero is experiential, stimulating, unexpected. The 120-seat restaurant has 25-foot ceilings and is built around a 26-seat bar that should be full nightly. The music is frenzied, the waiters move quickly, the benches are close together and the plates are made to be shared.
“We take our food seriously, but not so much ourselves,” Spero said. “When our customers see that we’re here to have a good time, they’re more likely to do the same.”
The menu highlights Mid-Atlantic seafood and produce from the same vendors, farmers, and fishermen who supplied Reverie. The raw sea bass will feature seasonal oysters, sea urchins, live scallops and shellfish cooked over the fire and finished with lardo and cream. Other limited-availability items will also appear, such as live Maine spider crabs.
A grilled whole lobster is dissected and prepared in pieces. Even the eggs are turned into butter sauce. A whole roasted Spanish turbot will be drizzled with olive oil, garlic, chili peppers, kombu and herbs. Shenandoah Valley pork and steak will also be available at certain times.
His Basque cheesecake dessert is actually a playful optical illusion. He starts with the Basque cheesecake, transforms it into ice cream, encapsulates it in a caramelized mousse, covers it with sugar, flambés it, then slices it like a cake. He serves it over baked pastry that looks like a burnt piece of parchment, the same visual you’d get if you ordered a piece of the real thing in Spain.
“When people come out, I want it to be that thing that they can’t get out of their head. It just makes you want more,” he said.
It was the same goal Spero had for Reverie, although the experience was very different. And the Michelin star? It didn’t make him guess where he was coming from. It made him confident that he was doing something good and unique, that he had to trust his own unruly instincts.
Then he rebuilds Reverie. Into something even better.
“Losing these physical items doesn’t matter much,” he posted on Instagram of the fire. “The memories will always be there. Every person who walked through that door had a lasting imprint on this restaurant that can’t be removed. It was hard to see a shell of a space, demolished and dirty, but I look at it as a blank slate to make him the best version of himself, which he was meant to be.
Click here to see more photos of Bar Spero.