We’re as excited as anyone to see many of our favorite spots start to re-open after extended shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have opted to embrace new ways of doing business, while others have refined menus and gone back to basics, partnering with local farms or tightening menus to focus on
Several weeks ago, one of our top options in DC, Reverie, helmed by Chef Johnny Spero, re-opened their doors in the popular neighborhood of Georgetown, recommitting the restaurant’s focus to fresh vegetables and seafood, a healthy choice in an era when many of us have overindulged in comfort fare.
We asked Spero and the team what has changed about dining in DC, and what he’s been up to since quarantine, in this exclusive Q&A.
The hospitality industry and dining in particular has suffered a massive change since COVID took over our lives in March. You guys were one of the first high-end spots to do a pickup option via Tock. How did that work for your restaurant, and what did you learn from that pivot?
We knew that something was going to hit our industry way before they announced we would have to close our dining room. Having friends all over the world and seeing how this was changing everything, not just restaurants, months before it hit us. I didn’t have a fully detailed plan but used what we knew would translate best from hand-thrown ceramic plates to paper to go boxes. One thing I’ve learned from being in restaurants almost my entire life is that we can turn on a dime and change as needed. It wasn’t easy at all but we had to evolve to make it work and keep our doors open. I was concerned the longer we closed down, the harder it would be to get back to where we were.
How has COVID changed your menu philosophy, if at all?
The entire experience basically fast-tracked what I wanted to grow the restaurant into. A restaurant is about building trust before you can 100% take full control. The first year we were just finding our voice and figuring out what worked in the space and what direction I wanted to take us in. I knew I didn’t just want to be a burger restaurant, that was never the point but it helped gain the trust of everyone. If we could put that much care into a seemingly simple burger, then what else could we do?
You guys are now doing some limited in-restaurant dining as well as a patio experience. How have you changed the restaurant to accommodate the new normal?
By design, the restaurant was already set up to accommodate the changes we would have had to make. We don’t get to utilize the counter seating at the moment but the dining room was already so spaced out, we just had to rearrange to create a little more distance between the tables. The outside has a limited amount of seating as well and the systems we had in place prior just needed a few additional practices to ensure we were operating in a safe space.
This has been a negative impact to many restaurant’s bottom lines – so much so that many DC restaurants have closed entirely and more have closed even as of this week. Do you see a long-term future for your restaurants in DC?
It’s hard to see that far into the future when we are unsure of what each week brings and I know there will be a lot of heartache with closures and restaurants basically rebuilding themselves into something new but if anything good can come of it, I think the community had grown closer and we try to support each other even more so then we did before. I think the ones who make it through all of this will almost be unstoppable, I mean we are literally fighting every single day to keep our spaces running so if we can make it beyond this, everything else will seem like a speed bump compared to the hurdles we are trying to clear now.
What trends do you predict will emerge as a result of this pandemic – are you re-committing to in-person dining, trying new cuisines, or going more or less “fine dining” in your concept?
I think there will be a lot of change, and I’m hopeful the biggest change is that guests appreciate and see the value in sourcing more so now than ever. With a lot of farms switching to CSAs to survive and a lot people feeling more comfortable with that option than going to a store at the beginning of this, I think there’s a better outlook on why some of us charge more, whether its meat fish or vegetables because we source appropriately and that doesn’t always mean we get the cheapest prices especially when we are supporting farms and purveyors that instill higher standards and more sustainable practices then factory farming.
What is your one piece of advice for home cooks trying to recreate the restaurant experience at home?
It’s about having fun. Play your music loud, get creative with the plating, and if something doesn’t work out 100% the way you want it you have to keep trying. We don’t always get it exactly right the first time.
When you do eat out in DC, what’s your favorite spot, and why? What’s your go-to in-person and your favorite takeout spot?
I think most people who follow me on Instagram know one of my favorites is 2Amys. It’s always been my go-to spot, the food is incredible but it’s a great place to bring my small family. Our daughter is almost 2 and it’s fun sharing a table that I sat at almost a decade ago with her. I haven’t done much take-out since we try to cook at home a lot but favorites so far have been Thip Khao, Makan, Jerk at Nite, Albi, Muchas Gracias, and Bammys.
Who has been your inspiration during this pandemic – who have you leaned on for support?
I’m lucky to have such an amazing circle of friends in this industry who have been there when I need help navigating these unchartered waters. There’s a lot of open conversations, we may not always have the right answer but being able to just talk to someone makes you realize you’re not alone. Danny Lee from Mandu and Anju, Boby Pradachith from Thip Khao, Aaron Silverman of Roses and Pineapple Pearls, Jeremiah Langhorne from The Dabney, John Shields from Smyth, and Justin Carlisle from Ardent are just a few who have been there just to talk through all this. Also, my wife and daughter push me harder than anyone else. The need to provide a better and more comfortable life for them drives me more than any list or ranking system ever will.
If you’re in the DC area, check out Reverie here.