Johnny Spero, at his eponymous bar.
Johnny Spero, at his eponymous bar. All photos courtesy Bar Spero

Dish By DishWashington D.C.

How Johnny Spero Is Rebuilding With D.C.’s Bar Spero, in Five Dishes


The life of Michelin-starred chef Johnny Spero can probably be best described in one word: resilient.

Last August, he was awoken early in the morning with news that his Georgetown restaurant Reverie was destroyed in a severe fire. It was a “punch to the face,” Spero says, but his determination and resolve kept him focused. After all, he had staff to support, and a growing family — Spero’s third child was born just a few weeks later.

“Did I cry? I sat in the alleyway of and sobbed at 5 a.m.,” Spero admits. “But then I picked myself up and got to work. We had to keep going, so we can eventually plan to reopen Reverie. This fire helped me think about doing things differently.”

A month after the fire, Spero was at the center of friends and family night as he opened his second restaurant, Bar Spero — a sleek, Basque-style restaurant in Downtown D.C. that uses open-flame cooking.

“I think opening restaurants is one of the riskiest things you can do. Going from the Reverie fire to this, if anything, has pushed me even harder,” he says. “It’s also poetic that in one month I lost a restaurant to a fire, then opened another one fueled by fire. It’s a bit ironic in a way.”

Looking to the future, Spero is staying focused by adding new dishes and inspiration to Bar Spero. In May, Spero will also continue his “Reverie on the Road” series (#reverieontheroad) traveling to LURRA° in Kyoto and Saison in San Francisco.

Here, he walks us through five dishes and drinks on his menu that reflect his approach to cooking and how he views himself — resilient, fun, and in his own words, “trashy but classy.”

1. Turbot

Served whole, herbed cod dashi emulsion

“This is the most Basque dish on the menu. Most of the seafood we source from the New England region, but having a restaurant inspired by Basque country, we had to do turbot. I don’t cook traditional Basque food, but some of my greatest memories are going to these Basque restaurants, getting a whole fish, cooked all the way on the fire. We cook it simply with a little bit of water, olive oil, kombucha, and vinegar. And then the sauce is a stock out of cod skin and emulsified butter. The sauce coats the fish, and the skin just gets a little crisp. It’s perfect. It’s super gelatinous, and it’s got so much texture and flavor.”

2. Burger

Special sauce, smoked cheddar, and misozuke pickles

“So, originally we were only doing it on the daily menu card for limited orders. Really, it was based on how much leftover trim we had, because it’s mostly rib eye. 80% of that burger is rib eye. It is not a cheap burger to make. It has that smashed patty appeal to it. It’s a simple pleasure. But I always say, I kind of define myself as trashy but classy. As much as I enjoy the tasting menu, I’m still just a kid from Baltimore.”

3. Beef Tartare

Capers, fried potato, and allium

“For this one, we take more beef trimming and freeze it solid in our walk-in. Then, we roast it over fire embers, then grind it and render the juice out. That’s how we make the beef fat emulsion, which is basically mayonnaise with beef fat. We use it to dress the beef. So, it’s smoky and roasted, and again, it’s trim that would’ve either gone to the burger or been wasted. We top it with crispy fried potatoes and the allium powder. It’s incredible. People have said it is like the most refined stoner food they’ve ever had.”

4. Grilled Oysters

Sauce sidra blanc, pickled garlic, and brown butter

“Probably the most popular dish on the menu is the grilled oysters. Growing up in Baltimore, I think oysters were usually overcooked, covered in bacon, and just kind of treated poorly. Everything was too chewy and too buttery.

We are taking a much different approach. We shuck our oysters as if we were going to serve them raw, then gently grill them with the sidra and brown butter sauce, and some pickled garlic. That’s it. I think all of our food for the most part relies on delicious ingredients that go to some base components. Really, there are only three to four things in every dish. What truly defines us is the time and technique to prepare our dishes. Making something that could be so simple, but just wildly delicious — that’s a skill.”

5. The Drinks

Mocktails, vermouth, and Basque wine

“After the fire, old Johnny, almost five years ago, probably would’ve moved a little bit slower and gone to the bar and maybe had a couple of beers or shots. Again, nothing wrong with that, but I feel things now, and it’s for the better that I don’t drink.

[Today,] I make moves with intent. Our beverage menu also welcomes those who want to try zero-abv drinks like the Non-groni Sbagliato or our housemade soda and alcohol-free ciders. Of course, those who want an alcoholic drink can try a range of vermouths, cocktails, and Basque-style wines. We wanted this to be a bar for all, and it’s about balance. You could have your drink and then you could have a non-alcoholic drink. It would not be the end of your night.”


Tim Ebner is an award-winning food and travel writer. He has contributed to The Washington Post, Eater, Thrillist, Travel & Leisure, and Edible DC. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.