Image: Rib-eye, squash, sunchokes.
Last Updated: March 2023
The setting and the food is modern with playful touches. The dishes can be small, precise, and eaten in a single bite. Or they can be mammoth and tackled only with more than one person. In the same dinner you may pause to slowly savor the tuna tartare wrapped in a shiso leaf, then feel compelled to lap up the deeply flavored, heavily buttered sauce that goes with the 40 ounces of rib-eye and can evoke dark chocolate ganache in richness as it cools and congeals. Almost all the dishes come either raw like tartares, ceviches, raw bar items or cooked over a wood-fired grill. Chef Johnny Spero will also sneak in a smokey element to raw dishes like Hiramasa fish pieces topped with “charcoal cream.” There are a few big plates under the ¡Let’s Go! section of the menu, like the giant rib-eye (since replaced with “dino” bone beef rib), a whole turbot, and a whole poussin presented simply with neck and feet extending from the plate. Each day there is also a list of dishes done just for a limited time.
The dessert list is short, but it includes a star. The Basque Burnt Cheesecake is a frozen ice cream version of the regional specialty and has been tweaked along the way. And the team seems particularly proud of the smoked labneh dessert.
Spero has cooked in renowned kitchens and draws on those for Bar Spero. In San Sebastian a common naming convention is to call a place after the chef/owner with the bar prefix, such as Bar Nestor, Bar Ricardo. He intended for it to be a bit more “loud” than Reverie, his spot in Georgetown, but even Spero unleashed is more intellectual than raucous. Responding to Nevin Martell’s recitation of the beef tartare preparation (“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.”) Spero joked, “Yes, this is our simple, casual restaurant.” It is the kind of place that is hard to categorize. It is creative like New American, it draws on modernist Spanish and Asian flavors. Esquire called it “classy, trashy Basque.” Michelin calls it ”Contemporary.” In our “quick take” summary we say it is, “An ode to San Sebastian sung in modern American verse.” So, we go with New American.
The wine list matches the serious/playful sides of the restaurant with straightforward options and interesting bottles mixed in. It draws primarily from Spain, U.S. and French sources. There are few options below $70, but most of the list starts above $100. The bar is well stocked, with more than a few vermouths (again a nod to Spain). There are also zero proof wines and ales.
We started this site to highlight the gastronomic golden age that hit D.C. a few years ago and, although not completely overlooked, was not fully appreciated. Bar Spero is the kind of unique, fun, occasionally transcendent spot we wanted to make sure people knew about. Consider yourself on notice.
Other Guidance: The restaurant is located at street level. The bar and bathrooms are located down a few steps (side elevator available). It is sleek and fancy, but not fussy. Jeans are not out of place. The menu has a few items to accommodate GF and vegetarians, but the big format dishes are meat and fish generally.
Cuisine: New or Old American (by way of San Sebastian)
Neighborhood: Mt. Vernon/Convention Center
Address: 250 Massachusetts Ave NW Suite 155, Washington, DC 20001
Washington Post: No coverage yet, but Spring (Dining Guide) is coming!
Washington City Paper: Martell’s first impression.
Esquire: Best New Restaurant List 2022, “Bar Spero’s understatements can be pretty loud too.”