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Bar Spero is the latest venture from Johnny Spero, so anyone who’s followed his career—chef of the Michelin-starred Reverie and a Minibar alum who left José Andrés’ visionary restaurant to stage at the award-drenched Mugaritz in Spain—already knows it can’t be just a bar. It isn’t, and he’s the first to admit the name is misleading. “It was more of a reflection of the casual feel we wanted for the space,” says Spero, who took inspiration from his time in Spain, where food-forward watering holes had names like Bar Ricardo and Bar Roberto.
Spero’s 6,500-square-foot, 120-seat eatery with industrialized cathedral-style ceilings is located on a high traffic corner in the Capitol Crossing complex perched on Massachusetts Avenue NW between Chinatown and Union Station. “I recognized that if we were to do something bigger, we needed to be in a part of town that was a little bit more accessible,” the chef says.
The split-level space features a sunken bar that has a peekaboo look into the kitchen, and the upper deck is devoted to the dining room with soaring windows looking out on Massachusetts Avenue NW. The color scheme skews aquatic, complemented by light wood flooring and illuminated mountainous outlines looming over the tables and booths that take advantage of the soaring space while serving as eye-catchers for passersby. Clean and elegant, the space is designed so “nothing’s distracting you from what’s on your plate,” says Spero, who did allow for one fun visual distraction: mirrors shaped like Pit Viper sunglasses in the bathrooms.
The cuisine is seafood-centric with most fish and shellfish coming from Maine, hearth cooking is a focus (Spero refers to fire as their “seasoning”), and there’s a strong emphasis on seasonality, technique, and intricate flavor layering. “It’s taking what we had at Reverie and building something out that flexed the other side of what we wanted to do,” he says. “Same touch, same feel, same sourcing, but very different presentation.”
The menu is divided into three main categories—raw selections, smaller plates featuring fire-kissed components, and larger entrees—along with a trio of desserts. The first category includes a towering plateau decked out with oysters, clams, mussels, tuna, and lobster. There’s also a selection of American and Spanish hams served with bread from Manifest, a cottage bakery opening a brick and mortar in Riverdale Park. Beef tartare is a ground up mix of dry-aged rib-eye and sirloin mixed with cornichons, capers, and a mayo-like emulsion of smoky rendered beef fat. On top there’s a lawn of thin potato wisps colored green with allium-powered powder, the green expanse dotted with edible flowers. “Yes, this is our simple, casual restaurant,” Spero jokes.
“From the fire” selections include grilled oysters topped with a hollandaise-ish sauce made with Basque cider, pan-seared baby squid on a squid ink-colored sauce fueled by mirin and kombu stock, and hearth cooked leek hearts filled with melted leeks and topped with creamy smoked mussel sauce and a translucent rectangle of lardo. (Note: There are very few options for vegetarians or vegans.)
The larger “¡Let’s Go!” entrees, designed to be shared, include grilled turbot, brined rib-eye grilled and brushed with a kombu mushroom sauce, and an arresting whole grilled lobster presentation lavished with brown butter and served with a salad topped with ranch-inspired dressing made with lobster tomalley.
The bar has a thoughtful selection of wines by the glass, artful cocktails, a quartet of beers on draft (including Beer Spero Rice Lager custom made by Nighthawk Brewing), and a nice vermouth list. There are also some thoughtful nonalcoholic options, including house-made celery soda and sparkling cider. This section was a must for Spero, who has been alcohol-free for four years; he quit drinking alcohol before his daughter Fiona was born. He chose to step away from drinking because he recognized the toll it was taking. “I’m a better person when I can sit and feel my emotions—rather than being numb—because that makes me make better decisions,” he says.
Bar Spero is the chef’s main focus these days, since an August electrical fire gutted Reverie. The flames were so hot that bottles of wine exploded, shelving melted, equipment was ruined, and the chef’s personal belongings—cookbooks and pictures of his family—were reduced to ashes. The smoke damage was omnipresent, even in places the fire didn’t touch. “I have to start over from scratch,” Spero says. “We’re going to rebuild it into something even more unique and special.”
Reverie 2.0 will be the same, but different. There will still be an open kitchen but expect the look and feel to be “sleeker and more minimalist, a little cleaner, and darker,” says Spero, who is also having the entryway redesigned to be a transportive transition from the outside world into the restaurant experience.
He hopes, with fingers crossed, that the restaurant will reopen next summer. In the meantime, Reverie is popping up in a series of collaborative dinners at Minibar through the end of November; a portion of the proceeds go toward rebuilding the restaurant.
Bar Spero, 250 Massachusetts Ave. NW. (202) 506-3150. barspero.com