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Everything in Chef Johnny Spero’s life currently comes in pairs. He and his wife, Alexis, recently added two kids and two dogs to their family and this winter, Spero will give Reverie a sister restaurant. Bar Spero will open in the Capitol Crossing development at 250 Massachusetts Ave. NW.
The inspiration for the “energetic” restaurant focused on open hearth cooking and seafood comes from one of the most formative years in Spero’s career. He ventured to Spain’s Basque Country in 2015 to cook at Mugaritz outside San Sebastián. The restaurant consistently ranks among the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants.” The shifts were long and arduous, Spero says, but on Sunday nights he and the crew of cooks he lived with set out to soak in the spirited nightlife.
“We’d go to Bar Ricardo for vermouth and croquetas, then Bar Néstor for tomato salad and chuleta,” Spero says. “It’s not a Clarendon bar crawl, but it was going through these spaces tasting and being active and lively. I will always remember that, even as burnt out as I was. Those Sunday nights were some of the most special times in my life.”
“I want to translate that feeling and that emotion into a space,” Spero says of his desire to create transportive restaurants.
Edit Lab at Streetsense is designing the neon-accented space with about 130 seats inside and 40 seats outside. Diners will be able to get a glimpse of Spero and his team working the wood-fired grill. The a la carte menu will focus on large-format dishes like duck from Pennsylvania or whole turbot from Spain that people can share as if at a dinner party. Spero also plans to showcase the specialty seafood he gets from Maine that already stars on the menu at Reverie. There will be a robust raw bar.
Although Spero conceived of the restaurant with pulsing Basque bars in mind, the menu won’t skew exclusively Spanish. What he will borrow from Mugaritz Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is New Spanish cuisine’s obsession with finding and respecting the best available ingredients.
The bar will be stocked with sherry, vermouth, wine, beers on tap, and a full cocktail menu.
Bar Spero is Spero’s third venture as a chef/owner in the District. Short-lived Suna opened in 2013 and closed in 2014. There was no time to sulk, as the chef landed on his feet at one of the most coveted and experimental cooking jobs in the city at minibar by José Andrés. Spero also spent time in the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Komi, the fine dining Dupont Circle restaurant that’s currently operating as Happy Gyro.
Spero opened his second restaurant, Reverie, in Georgetown in 2018. The modern menu has always been full of surprises and unexpected flavor combinations. One dish on Reverie’s current tasting menus marries sunchoke miso ice cream with a spoonful of kaluga caviar. Another combines pork with morcilla (blood sausage), kombu (seaweed), and kale. When Reverie offered an a la carte menu, Spero was smashing some of the best gourmet burgers in the city.
“Bar Spero fulfills my desire to do a lot of different things,” the chef says. “Reverie is a tasting menu restaurant, but there’s something also about cooking somewhere over an open fire. It’ll be a little less finessed, but still our style.” He’s currently hiring. “We’re talking to people who understand the approach of primal cooking techniques,” he says.
He’s wanted to expand for a while and set a goal of making a foray into a new neighborhood. “My goal is to never cannibalize one concept,” he says. “D.C. isn’t a metropolis, but going across town versus Georgetown attracts different crowds.”
(Spero is also involved in Nighthawk coming to Arlington later this fall with partners Scott Parker and Aslin Beer Company.)
Bar Spero joins a host of other places to eat and drink bound for Capitol Crossing, a 2.2 million square foot, multi-phase development spread over three city blocks. They include Tatte Bakery & Cafe, a Japanese food hall called Love, Makoto, and a “Italian glam” restaurant from the team behind Unconventional Diner dubbed L’Ardent.
“Food should always be an escape,” Spero says. If there’s one lesson he says he learned from operating a restaurant in a pandemic it’s that “food can and should make you happy.”
Bar Spero, 250 Massachusetts Ave. NW; barspero.com