What Happens When Diners Decide the Price of a Tasting Menu

Reverie in Georgetown experimented with pay-what-you-want reservations, and the results are in.

Scallop crudo with buttermilk and dill. Photo by Scott Suchman

After chef Johnny Spero opened his upscale Georgetown restaurant Reverie late last year, he decided to try a little experiment. Every night, two diners could reserve a special five-to-six-course tasting menu where Spero would test out new dishes. But at the end of the meal, there would be no check. The diners would decide how much to pay.

About three months in, Spero ended the “friends of the house” experiment. “The intent was to do a trial run and see how it went and what happened,” Spero explains. He initially feared that people might take advantage of the situation and not leave anything at all. But ultimately, he was pleasantly surprised with its results.

On average, people paid around $65 to $70 for the dinner, excluding alcohol (which was not included). That’s more than Spero expected and on par with the restaurant’s normal check average for food. On the low-end, some college students left around $20 to $30. On the higher end, patrons opted to pay $85 to $90.

More importantly, Spero says the choose-your-price option helped to bring in people who might not have otherwise dined at Reverie or at a fine-dining restaurant in general. On one occasion, Spero invited his Uber driver, who also worked for a non-profit. Another time, some new parents signed up because they wanted to have a date night without a wild price tag before the mother returned to work. Many of the diners heard about the deal from a radio appearance Spero did.

“We had from GW students all the way up to people in their 50s and 60s coming from Bethesda and Rockville,” Spero says. “There was no dead-set demographic.”

The tasting menu also gave him a chance to test out new dishes in a lower-stakes environment. Many of the creations have ended up on the regular menu, including braised lamb shoulder glazed in currants and huckleberries and white asparagus with truffle butter.

This summer, Spero is looking to add a tasting menu for the full dining room in addition to the a la carte offerings. One thing he’ll likely carry over from the experiment is the “cheese course”—a half-cheeseburger. Although there are no concrete plans yet, Spero would also like to bring back the pay-what-you-want model again for a couple people on a couple days a week.

“It brought out a really cool group of people and, actually, some of them have become regulars at the restaurant,” Spero says. “If anything, it broke down any preconceived notion of what the restaurant was going to be.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.