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Eatery starts pay-what-you-can menu to foster accessibility

December 22, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Johnny Spero developed the concept for his new Georgetown restaurant, Reverie, a project two-and-a-half years in the making, the 32-year-old chef kept his focus on one word: approachable.

He wanted to build a space that could cater to neighbors in search of a weeknight glass of wine and a burger (made with dry-aged rib-eye scraps, mind you), as well as those looking to splurge on a roasted duck platter for a special occasion.

Now, just two months after opening, Spero is taking that concept of accessibility one step further with a pay-what-you-can tasting menu, as first reported by Eater. Each night, the restaurant seats two guests at the chef’s counter (reservations must be made in advance) for a multicourse meal, served by Spero, himself.

At the end of service, diners are handed a blank check.

“Whatever you feel comfortable paying, whatever you can pay, that’s what we’ll put on your card,” said Spero, who was recently featured on the Netflix cooking show, “The Final Table.”

Launching a tasting menu is something Spero has always wanted to do — he has worked in tasting-menu restaurants for most of his career, including Minibar and Komi — but he didn’t want a price tag to deter interested diners. In the D.C. area, tasting menu experiences range from around $100 to $300 per person.

“You want to change people’s perceptions on food, and the only way you can do that is if you make it approachable and accessible. That was the idea,” said Spero, who mentioned that friends in the nonprofit sector and aspiring chefs in culinary school were part of the inspiration behind the program.

“I know if I was an 18-year-old cook working at a restaurant, thinking about going out to dinner, it’s kind of a headache when you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can afford this; is it OK if I’m late on my rent by a week?’ . . . We want everyone, from all walks of life.”

Reverie’s first tasting-menu guests were new parents in search of one last hurrah before buckling down on the budget to save for child care. Spero, who welcomed his first daughter two-and-a-half months ago, said the evening couldn’t have gone smoother.

“Not having that direct price tag, sticker shock associated with it, they were able to enjoy their night, their son can go to day care, and they can go on with their lives,” he said.

Since the tasting-menu option is still new, Spero hasn’t crunched the numbers, but said he doesn’t expect to lose money on the new offering. (Keeping pricey ingredients such as truffles and caviar off the menu is one way to ensure that. Beverage orders are also separate, and charges do apply.)

The other 62 seats in Reverie, which is tucked in an alley just off Grace Street NW, are reserved for a la carte dining. Spero changes the restaurant’s menu frequently, but prices for main dishes generally fall between $16 and $28.

Reservations for the 6 p.m. pay-what-you-can seats, called “Friends of the House,” are available online. December slots are currently sold out, but January and February seatings will be released soon.

“We’re not trying to make $1 million on two seats a night, we’re just trying to create an experience (that is) . . . approachable to everybody,” Spero said.

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Information from: WTOP-FM, http://www.wtop.com