Basque-themed bar Spero lands in the heart of DC
Michelin-starred chef Johnny Spero dives into the Spanish side of his resume with the opening this week of the stylish, seafood-centric Spero Bar.
Spero’s blue-hued new venture is inspired by the Basque Country nightlife-bustling resort town of San Sebastian, where bars are eponymous nods to their owners. The well-traveled chef, who left Minibar in 2015 to perform at Mugaritz in Spain, says Bar Spero is much more than its name suggests. Along with a bountiful selection of raw bars, Bar Spero relies on the raw power of its fire-fueled grill to whip up everything from elegant Spanish turbot to meaty Shenandoah Valley pork.
The 6,500 square foot project will open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. to begin (250 Massachusetts Avenue NW). The original opening date of Wednesday September 14 could be pushed back to a later date this week. Bar Spero joins the growing Capitol Crossing complex that hosted flashy Italian restaurant L’Ardente next door last fall.
Spero also runs Georgetown’s modernist Reverie tasting room, which remains temporarily closed due to damage from a destructive fire last month.
“We are not opening a high-end Spanish cocktail bar. It couldn’t be further,” says Spero. “What’s cool is that I don’t necessarily define myself as fine dining. Reverie tells my story, as does Bar Spero.
His experience also includes stays at DC’s Komi and Columbia Room and Copenhagen’s Noma. His new project strives to showcase a louder side to his personality, he says, as well as his cutting-edge vendor partnerships. “Farmers creep into my DMs at 3 a.m.,” he says.
Bar Spero’s menu is divided into three playful sections: raw bar; cooked dishes; and “Let’s go!” Each dish aims to tell a story about the origin of each ingredient.
“[The seafood] is a finite resource, so it helps establish a conversation about what is sustainable and also keeps us alert and entertained,” says Spero.
The raw bar is not limited to marine life, however. Beyond a “platter” of shellfish that shelters a mountain of oysters, clams, mussels, prawns and lobster, there is also the tomato or beef tartare. The raw bar also highlights a daily basket of whatever Spero can get his hands on. Unique options each night can range from spider crab and whelk (sea snail) to razor clams. The baby scallops he picks up from a family farm in Maine are some of the “best I’ve ever eaten,” he says.
Larger plate sections take advantage of a roaring open hearth – the ultimate kitchen tool that Spero can’t stop spurting.
“The grill allows me to show off my love of local seafood,” says Spero, who showcases his Mid-Atlantic upbringing through the menu.
The whole lobster is split and each deconstructed part receives a tailor-made treatment in the kitchen. The crustacean’s body receives an elegant touch on the grill, while the shank and claw are thrown directly onto the embers. The tomalli, or innards, get an emulsification in an umami vinaigrette over baby gem lettuce.
Spero also serves local pork, bone-in rib eye and imported whole Spanish turbot under a shower of tarragon leaves. Also on the grill: large and delicious hen of the woods mushrooms served in a kombu cream, accompanied by large potatoes with umami-bomb bottarga.
The wine program is larger than that of Reverie, emphasizing the unique varietals grown on the humid seaside and sunny hills of the Basque region of northern Spain. Stylistically, the menu resists the food, with options like the common txakoli, a lightly sparkling and very dry white wine, as well as other options from Spain, France and Italy. The cocktail menu also follows the example of the menu, incorporating elements of smoke and fire (see: the “Siete Cinco” with tequila, sparkling rose and charcoal syrup) and the use of beloved Spanish spirits, vermouth and sherry.
Spero sources his fizzy kombucha from Unified Ferments to appease non-drinkers like himself.
“You can always come to a bar and eat shellfish and drink something bubbly and fun,” says Spero.
The bathroom of the Bar Spero is the subject of particular attention. He describes his toilet as “trash chic”, with an “early ’90s sunglasses vibe”. Crisp white with neon accents, the mirror is retouched with a color-changing film.
As Bar Spero opens its doors, the chef must face the fact that his burnt-out Reverie must rebuild just months after receiving his first Michelin star. A GoFundMe page has been created to help with recovery.
“Although it will take time, we are confident that we will come back even stronger than before,” says Spero.