Matchbox Opens on 14th Street NW
What happens when you take a successful restaurant and recreate it in a hot, growing, dining-destination neighborhood? If you’re a national chain, you load the same decor into the same space, serve the same menu and find a kitchen crew who can serve DC residents the same food they would find in Dubuque. If you’re DC’s matchboxfoodgroup, it’s a very different story.
Find your favorites
This November, Matchbox opens its fourth location at 14th and T Streets NW. The kitchen will be helmed by veteran Matchbox chef Jeff Richardson. “The core of Matchbox’s menu is our customer’s favorites,” Jeff says. “Our mini burgers and thin crust pizzas are what put us on the map.” Diners already familiar with Matchbox’s locations in Chinatown and Barracks Row, DC and Rockville, MD, will recognize about 80% of the menu. What about the other 20%?
“Each Matchbox location reflects both its neighborhood and the experience and talents of the chef,” Richardson says. Their first location downtown is a happening lunch and happy hour spot for the Chinatown/Metro Center office crowds. Capitol Hill is a neighborhood crowd with a more mature palate, while Rockville is so family-oriented we have actually considered a children’s menu.”
Upon opening, the new location will use that 20% to let the Chef Richardson shine. His career began attending culinary school in Baltimore. Moving to DC to take a position as sous chef at Mie N Yu opened up a whole new palette of flavors for Richardson. That experience helps shape dishes like Matchbox’s Honey Miso Salmon with tempura shitake mushrooms and rice noodles. Will we be tasting any of the game he hunts each fall in his home state of New Jersey? No plans just yet, but never say never.
And at the bar? The 14th and T St NW location is dealing with a younger, residential crowd, flocking to the U Street neighborhood for drinks and dinner after long days at the office. Richardson expects this crowd to spend more time in the bar than they do at the other Matchbox locations. “While our diners on Capitol Hill enjoy their bourbon up, this crowd wants to relax and hang out over mixed drinks.”
As Richardson and his team settle into the new restaurant, the menu will begin to reflect their customers’ tastes. “We’ve dined around the neighborhood to see what other successful restaurants are serving. We feel that the Matchbox menu will be a standout addition in a neighborhood whose dining options just keep getting better and more exciting.” Early considerations included the question of a light-fare menu for that bar crowd, but they’re going to give it a few weeks to watch as their new guests settle in.
Something old, something new
While the menu is 80% familiar, the space is a 100% new experience. The building, originally constructed in 1907 has been laid bare to historic brick, providing the opportunity to create a dramatic new interior. The inside offers seating on three levels with a sixty-seat patio outdoors along T Street.
The renovation indoors provided the opportunity to preserve warm, historic materials and install dramatic new elements. Entering the building from 14th Street, you are immediately impressed by the sheer size of the space. The 40’ x 106’ lot offers a rare opportunity in Washington to enjoy so much room within an historic building. To the left stretches the longest bar in any of the Matchbox restaurants, offering serpentine curves with smooth, hand-polished wood. A high banquette and bar tables provide plenty of seating for a more casual evening where the drink rounds may overshadow your plates of small bites and shared pizzas.
The rest of the restaurant, despite its vast size, provides intimate corners and private booths to escape into for a longer evening of enjoying Matchbox’s selection of entrées, like coconut curry braised short ribs, or a seasonal favorite like the prosciutto and black mission fig pizza.
Hip and homey defines this space. Large blocky, unfinished wooden steps deliver you to the second floor to discover more dining space and two rock-star private dining tables. Built inside boxes and finished with slats from the original bowling alley, the private dining booths, seating 4-6 each, feel both intimate and grand, providing a view of the entire restaurant. Through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, gaze down from a place of calm and luxury to the fast-paced nightlife in the bar below.
The third floor at the back of the restaurant will provide both additional dining and space for special events, several of which have already been booked ahead of the opening.
An interesting history
1901 14th Street NW seems to be a perfect space for Matchbox, already feeling cozy and broken in. But the building has a long and storied history. Cook Brothers Coal and Wood built an office there in 1888. Caroline Godey opened a two-story bowling alley and billiard parlor there in 1907, the building that currently stands at the address. Lanes were reserved in the afternoons for women’s use.
The building spent the twenties and thirties as a car dealership, and the forties and early 50’s as “The Bali,” one of Washington, DC’s most popular night clubs. Following the owners indictment for jury tampering in a gambling ring case, the club closed and was occupied by many businesses, including a restaurant. Most recently it was used as a rehearsal hall and warehouse by Arena Stage.
With wood-burning ovens for their pizzas and a fire pit on the patio, Matchbox pays homage to the Cook Brothers. Though women and men will enjoy their drinks together, they will again tread on some of the original boards from Caroline Godey’s bowling lanes, and, as the Washington Post once described “The Bali,” with an experienced chef, well-loved menu and dynamic new space, Matchbox will prove again that “when you offer the better talent, the business comes to you.”
Jonathan Bardzik was raised on his mom’s garden-fresh vegetables. He shares those recipes, and his experience gained spending 2-3 hours each night in the kitchen, every Saturday morning at Eastern Market, where he gives free cooking demonstrations,
complete with tastings and recipe cards. For more information, and to see what Jonathan is cooking in his kitchen right now, visit www.whatihaventcookedyet.com.