When Johnny Spero makes a life change, he goes all in.
While simultaneously preparing for the opening of his modern American restaurant Reverie and the birth of his daughter Fiona in 2018, he stopped drinking. The storied chef and restaurateur made a conscious choice to live life as fully and clear-headed as possible when embarking on the next chapter as both a business owner and father.
And when Covid hit and he had to rethink how to keep his Georgetown brick-and-mortar open and his family safe and healthy, he embraced clean living. A plant-based diet, cycling daily, prioritizing his family, and making economically sound decisions for his personal and professional life have all been the perfect recipe for Spero to remain sane and resilient during the pandemic.
This acute sense of intentionality trickling down through every facet of his life is what has equipped him to keep an upscale restaurant with an intimate experience afloat while the nation’s hospitality industry is floundering.
“This whole year has been [about] restructuring,” he tells me on Reverie’s soon-to-be winterized enclosed patio on an October afternoon. “It definitely brought a lot of things to light, like, ‘Okay, we can live a much better life if we just eat cleaner, work smarter and are smart with our money. We can actually budget ourselves to live a better life. It’s the same thing with the restaurant. If we just scale this back and this and this, because otherwise we’ll be closed, we’ll be able to operate a lot healthier.”
Spero speaks with an earnestness that defies even the biggest cynic’s first impression of his minimalist approach to living life purposefully. He knows what he wants, and despite his youthful presence, he has the chops to back it up. He’s been in the restaurant industry since his teen years, propelling his career with stints at Komi in Old Town, Alexandria and acclaimed chef Johnny Shields’ Town House in Southwest Virginia. After opening his short-lived but memorable D.C. restaurant Suno, he then worked for several years as executive sous chef for José Andrés’ Minibar.
But it was his season-long experience at world-renowned restaurant Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain where the wheels began turning and Spero’s plan for Reverie was set in motion. Upon his return to the District, he worked as head chef at Drink Company’s Columbia Room while renovating the space that would become his second restaurant until October 2018, when his self-described second baby opened its doors.
“[Opening in] Georgetown is based on the experience of coming to this space. It might be that dreamer side of me. I really wanted someone to walk and stumble upon this place and find it. There was something about being right off the [C&O] Canal. Georgetown is probably the most historic neighborhood in D.C. that will not change in our lifetime because they just won’t allow for it. It’s beautiful in the sense that this building will not get torn down and turned into some new, modern building. It’ll just be as it is.”
As his vision for Reverie came together, he was balancing an around-the-clock gig at Columbia Room with starting a family. Spero and his wife Alexis found out they were pregnant with their daughter Fiona leading up to the opening, and the chef says he knew he needed to make a change.
“A month before we opened, I just completely stopped drinking. I haven’t had a drink in a little over two years now. I knew I had to beg, borrow and do whatever I could to get the restaurant open. I didn’t have the luxury of not being mentally present, [especially] knowing that my daughter was going to be there soon. I needed to make sure that I was firing on all cylinders. That was definitely an interesting way to build up to a restaurant opening.”
While he couldn’t have been more confident in his lifestyle choices, Spero couldn’t quite put a finger on what he wanted the voice of his restaurant to be beyond a one-of-a-kind experience. In fact, he credits the pandemic with solidifying Reverie as the space he intended it to be from day one: a cozy neighborhood restaurant known for a dynamic menu of sustainably sourced, consistently fresh ingredients.
Simplicity seems key to Spero’s success at Reverie. He readily admits to getting bored of dishes quickly and seems eager to swap out items in order to keep guests on their toes, but he appreciates the reliability of mainstays – especially during Covid when locals are looking for a go-to source of comfort.
He doesn’t overcomplicate the dishes on his prix-fixe menu; it’s the story behind the crustacean’s point of origin or how every part of a creature was used in the sauce to avoid even a single ounce of waste that the chef takes pride in. Availability is also a core part of his culinary mantra, as he relies on what he can source locally from farms he’s built trusted partnerships with.
Spero tells me about the local farmer who tapped syrup from his birch trees, and how he bought every single gallon to use for his signature birch ice cream at Reverie until he ran out – no other birch syrup would do.
He walks me through the turbot, a popular Spanish fish, he cooks in a tomato reduction glaze made from “the ugly tomatoes we got from our farmer over the summer” and grills until charred. The fish is covered with preserved lemons, herbs like parsley and lovage, and a butter sauce made of dashi, garlic and dill.
“It’s inspired by the open fire-roasted turbot you get in Spain, but it has a bit more finesse and our touch to it.”
Another favorite is crab – it could be king or Dungeness, or swapped out for langoustine, depending on the live catch of the day – steamed just enough but not all the way through and gently cooked in butter. Spero glazes the crab in a sauce made of egg yolk, saves all of the juice and mustard inside each crab, separates the crab fat to make a hollandaise sauce, sprinkles breadcrumbs cooked in Edwards Surryano ham on top, and serves the dish with very ripe pears or apples that have been roasted for up to five hours.
Spero says he’s not looking to check off boxes with his menu; he just wants to cook good food and have fun.
“It’s not cookie cutter [or] repeat the same script. We have all the cooks describe the food, and everybody describes it differently. You get as much out of it as you put into it. If you want to know more, we can tell you where we got the crab from or how we cooked it, but everyone’s got their own voice. If I didn’t have every person here from the front of the house to the back of the house to the person who cleans the restaurant in the morning, it wouldn’t be the same restaurant. It has gone through so many different changes. But [through] every iteration, the restaurant is unique to itself because of the people who are here.”
Spero and his team are not immune to the economic impacts of Covid, but the chef is grateful for the rhythm they’ve found over the past few months. While not as robust as before, he can still rely on a steady stream of Georgetown-based regulars and locals from other parts of the DMV eager to support D.C.’s dining scene and create some semblance of a special night out during such trying times. And even with cold weather ahead, his covered patio will soon be full of heaters sure to keep guests warm until the bitter cold of early 2021. He says carryout has also been a huge success for Reverie during the pandemic.
“Now that we’ve defined who we are, we can figure out how to recreate the Reverie experience at home,” he says. “If you don’t want to go to the restaurant, we want to give the restaurant to you.”
He is hopeful guests understand the time and energy that goes into sourcing locally and sustainably, and also knows that his approach won’t appeal to every diner in the District. In fact, he prefers having a niche and is unapologetic about it.
“It’s a good mentality to have, that out of 10 people who come to the restaurant, there’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t like what you’re doing. Instead of trying to do this shotgun blast of food that appeals to every single person, we have to hyperfocus and get a very specific crowd in here. We’re not a very big restaurant. It’s about an experience. We’re not this crazy, hyper-fine dining restaurant, but we are fine dining. No matter how we try to spin it or hide it behind something else like a casual nuance, it’s still a fine dining restaurant.”
As Reverie continues to hit its stride and braces for cold weather months, Spero implores locals to remember that all D.C. restaurants need support.
“Whether it’s carryout or dining in, or even just mental check-ins – ask your favorite restaurant how they’re doing and if there’s anything you can do to help. Send as many people as you can to the restaurants.”
He describes the District’s hospitality community as tightknit and says, “We want to make sure we’re all building each other up and not breaking each other down, which is probably easier to do sometimes. Negativity is an easy thing to jump on, but we make sure to stay positive because it’s really easy to dive into that dark place. So just don’t do that.”
While still in the works and not yet ready to announce, Spero alludes to plans for a fast-casual concept that draws inspiration from the plant-based, health-conscious diet he has at home and the fresh, sustainable dishes he serves at Reverie. We may be rebuilding our food scene, but Spero doesn’t seem deterred by trying something new in the process.
“Hopefully, people will support the restaurants that are here and the restaurants that are trying to make the dining scene better, and look at it not as a sacrifice but as an investment to have a good experience. If it’s getting a burger to-go or sitting down doing a tasting menu, it has its value.”
3201 Cherry Hill Ln. NW, DC; 202-808-2952; www.reveriedc.com
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