Michelin-rated chef Johnny Spero dives into the Spanish side of his resume with the opening of sleek, seafood-centric Bar Spero this week.
Spero’s new blue-hued venture takes cues from Basque Country’s nightlife-driven resort town of San Sebastian, where bars are eponymous nods to their owners. The well-traveled chef, who left Minibar in 2015 to stage at Mugaritz in Spain, says Bar Spero is far more than its name implies. Along with a plentiful raw bar selection, Bar Spero relies on the raw power of its fire-fed grill to prepare everything from elegant Spanish turbot to meaty pork from the Shenandoah Valley.
The 6,500-square-foot project will open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. to start (250 Massachusetts Avenue NW). The original opening date of Wednesday, September 14, may be pushed to a later date this week. Bar Spero augments the growing Capitol Crossing complex that welcomed flashy Italian restaurant L’Ardente next door last fall.
“We’re not opening a high-end Spanish cocktail bar. It couldn’t be farther from that,” says Spero. “The cool thing about this is that I don’t necessarily define myself as fine dining. Reverie tells my story and so does Bar Spero.”
His background also includes stints at D.C.’s Komi and Columbia Room and Copenhagen’s Noma. His newest project strives to showcase a more raucous side of his personality, he says, as well as his peak partnerships with purveyors. “Farmers slide into my DMs at 3 a.m.,” he says.
Bar Spero’s menu is split into three playful sections: raw bar; fired dishes; and “Let’s Go!” Each dish aims to tell a story about where each ingredient is from.
“[The seafood] is a limited resource, so it builds conversation of what’s sustainable and also keeps us on our toes and entertained,” says Spero.
The raw bar doesn’t limit itself to marine life, however. Beyond a shellfish “plateau” that features a mountain of oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and lobster, there’s also tomato or beef tartare. The raw bar also highlights a daily cart of whatever Spero can get his hands on. One-off options each night may veer from spider crab and whelk (sea snail) to razor clams. The baby scallops he scoops up from a family-run farm in Maine are some of the “best I’ve ever had,” he says.
The larger plates sections take advantage of a roaring open hearth — the ultimate kitchen tool Spero can’t stop gushing about.
“The grill allows me to show my love of local seafood,” says Spero, who showcases his Mid-Atlantic upbringing across the menu.
The whole lobster is split, and each deconstructed part gets bespoke treatment in the kitchen. The crustacean’s body receives an elegant touch on the grill, while the knuckle and claw get tossed directly on embers. The tomalley, or innards, receive an emulsification into an umami dressing over baby gem lettuce.
Spero also serves local pork, bone-in ribeye, and a whole imported Spanish turbot under a shower of tarragon leaves. Also hitting the grill: chunky, toothsome hen of the woods mushroom served in a kombu cream, along with hefty potatoes with umami-bomb bottarga.
The wine program is larger than that at Reverie, placing emphasis on the unique grapes grown on the wet seaside and sunny hills of northern Spain’s Basque region. Stylistically, the list stands up to the food, with options like the common txakoli, a slightly sparkling and very dry white wine, plus other options from Spain, France, and Italy. The cocktail menu also follows the menu’s lead, integrating elements of smoke and fire (see: the “Siete Cinco” with tequila, sparkling rose, and charcoal syrup) and use of Spain’s beloved spirits vermouth and sherry.
Spero sources sparkling kombucha from Unified Ferments to appease non-drinkers like himself.
“You can still come to a bar and eat shellfish, and drink something sparkly and fun,” says Spero.
Bar Spero’s bathroom gets special attention. He describes his lavatories as “trashy classy,” with an “early ‘90s sunglasses vibe.” Bright white with pops of neon, the mirror is touched up with color-changing film.
Just as Bar Spero opens, the chef is dealing with the fact his fire-ridden Reverie has to rebuild just months after receiving its first Michelin star. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with recovery.
“Although it will take time, we are confident that we will come back even stronger than before,” says Spero.