Tinder Embrace Think Matchbox's pizza is just so-so? Tell that to the folks in line.

Fire-Thin: Matchbox partners Perry Smith, Drew Kim, Ty Neal, and Mark Neal serve lots of bacon without a lot of fat.
Darrow Montgomery

The most daunting question about the new Matchbox on Capitol Hill isn’t the obvious one—is it any good or is it as good as the original in Chinatown?—but one that’s much more difficult to answer: Why write about it at all?

I mean, the public has already rendered a verdict with no ambiguity whatsoever: The place with the combustion theme is as packed as a wood box in winter—no matter what day or time you visit, you’ll likely have to put your name on a list and wait. Maybe you’ll wait at the long, sleek bar made from shuffleboards salvaged from the vending warehouse that once occupied this space. Or maybe you’ll wait at a nearby watering hole because you can’t even get a seat at Matchbox’s bar.

Yep, from all appearances, the place would seem to be not only critic-proof, but recession-proof as well. It’s enough to make me think my role here is less about deliberating on Matchbox’s quality than solving the mystery behind it: What the hell is the secret to its success?

I’m not convinced that it’s the food alone. After all, two of Matchbox’s major draws—pizza and burgers—don’t stack up well against the area’s best players. You can sit there and watch the pizzaiolos stretching and flipping the dough until you practically ache for a pie, but the round that arrives at your table doesn’t always live up to the promise of that handiwork, at least not if you measure a pizza’s success by its crust. Matchbox’s pies are Neapolitan in spirit—thin-crusted, charred, and wood-fired—but Californian in their reliance on specialty toppings.

That’s not a criticism. Matchbox’s pizzas are not aiming for Italian authenticity, in which every last rise of dough is measured against Neapolitan legal requirements; no, they’re aiming squarely for the broad American palate, and they often hit their target.

Take the “fire & smoke,” a pie marketed to people who like to get their heads blown off. It’s a study in red and black, its hues rarely straying beyond variations on those two demonic colors. The pizza is layered with a chipotle-pepper-tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, and rounds of smoked gouda so symmetrically arranged they look like crop circles. Well, if hell had crop circles. The cheese is meant to help smother the heat in a blanket of fat, but the fire cannot be contained. This is a pie for people who consider four-alarm chili wimpy.

If the “fire & smoke” is about heat, then the prosciutto white is about salt. The latter is an artistic arrangement of cured ham, Kalamata olives, garlic, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, a combination that shows, as if we need more evidence, the power of salt to intensify and glorify the flavors all around it. Both pizzas, though, are like strippers: They’re top-heavy and proud of it.

The one round, however, that cannot skate solely on toppings is the Margherita, although Matchbox’s version tries hard; it comes choked with fresh buffalo mozzarella (the sheer volume of the cheese and its elastic texture made me think it was actually regular mozz) and swimming with a “zesty tomato sauce,” which forces the basil leaves to work hard to counteract the not-inconsiderable heat. But in this case, the overly muscular toppings can’t compensate for dry, flavorless crust. It’s the one time you’ll wish Matchbox’s pie-makers placed more emphasis on their dough. With a Margherita, after all, you expect to eat the crust on its own, happy to savor its yeasty qualities, not toss it aside like shells from a fresh oyster.

Matchbox’s semi-famous mini-burgers, available as always in groupings of three, six, and nine, are far more successful in creating an identity for this budding chain. Served on toasted brioche buns, paired with a pickle chip, and stacked around a busy hive of onion straws, the Angus sliders are old-fashioned comforts stylishly repackaged to validate our prole tastes; they’re simultaneously cool and calculated to limit our caloric intake. Brilliant, that.

Outside of these all-American bites, Jonathan McArthur, Matchbox’s head chef, has put together a couple of entrees that I’m surprised to report I like even better than the burgers. The crispy seared salmon is a marvel of kitchen technique, its exterior as crackly as caramelized sugar on crème brulee but its interior still moist and pink and flaky. The accompanying Tillamook cheddar grits (which strangely tasted more like Gruyère to me) serve as an unctuous escort without drowning out these crunchy bites of fish. A similar relationship can be found between the herbed risotto and the mollusks on McArthur’s seared sea scallops, whose sweet meatiness finds its expression even amid the rice and coconut red curry.

If you dine at Matchbox enough, you start to notice patterns—perhaps an ingredient (I’m looking at you, flat-iron steak) that makes repeated appearances, whether thrown on a salad or pizza or served as a stand-alone entree. But the kitchen also has an obsession with bacon. The cured pork comes wrapped around shrimp, wrapped around green beans, crumbled and sprinkled on the wedge salad, and even dumped into the wilted frisee on the “fried chicken two ways,” adding yet another note of heaviness to a plodding entrée that doesn’t need it.

These patterns strike me both as smart efficiencies and culinary cheats, particularly with the bacon, which acts as a fatty flavor enhancer for everything it touches. And yet the patterns don’t begin to explain Matchbox’s popularity. I feel like I’m noticing only the tiniest rivets to a much larger piece of machinery. Which is why I spent some time with Perry Smith and Ty Neal, two of the four owners. They helped me understand the whole Matchbox mystique.

It turns out not to be so mysterious, unless, that is, you’re mystified by the lack of quality restaurants in the mid-range of American culture, which is dominated by chains. The Matchbox owners understand the economic forces—the exorbitant rents, the expensive ingredients—that favor high-end restaurants and eat up the soft middle. They’ve merely devised a business plan that makes sense for their niche. They often buy the same pricey products as their fine-dining counterparts but prepare and sell them at a fraction of the cost. Long ago, Smith says, the owners decided that Matchbox would be “two-star prices, three-star experience.”

They make the numbers work through sheer volume (which only works, of course, when you serve volumes), but they’ve also invested their own cash and sweat equity into their properties. The owners personally designed the casual, wood-heavy rooms on Capitol Hill and even helped with the demolition and build-out of the space, shaving probably half of the usual costs, says Neal, who also builds those custom-made tables embedded with matchboxes. The guys, in other words, don’t have a ton of debt hanging over their heads, waiting to crash down on them if they don’t hit their numbers every week.

The more I talked with the owners, the more I realized the difficulties inherent in operating a quality mid-tier restaurant, an American version of those mouthwatering, mom-and-pop bistros and trattorias so easily found in Europe. But Matchbox has achieved it, and on its best days, I totally get why you have to fight for a seat.

Matchbox, 521 8th St. SE, (202) 548-0369

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.

Our Readers Say

If they were interested in volume, they'd be open for lunch. As it is, if I want miniburgers for lunch, I'm stuck going to Ugly Mug.
They should think about going Green.
Part of it is simple: it's a fun, lively place to eat. Many will continue to hate on places like Matchbox, Lauriol, Founding Farmers, Pasta Mia, etc because they're popular with the "unclean masses" (me being one) and the waits are long. You're not going there to get mindblowing food (though I'll argue that the food is tasty at all of the above) but rather because it's a fun place to eat with friends. I separate in my mind places that are fun for groups of friends and those that you want a quiet, refined meal.

Also, the affordability is a HUGE deal these days. It's definitely fairly priced, and perhaps a slight bargain. I'd love to see even more places like Matchbox- maybe a pasta version (like a huge Pasta Mia) or noddle version (we're waiting, Wagamama!)
I have been there twice, mostly due to the lack of choices (and having exhausted them) in Eastern Market. The first time I ordered the Portobella pizza which arrived with gobs of cheese. In fact, there was so much cheese it destroyed any possibility of enjoying the sought after holistic pizza experience. I have to say the pizza was actually disgusting.

On the second trip, I ordered the veggie pizza and I instructed the waiter to make sure the kitchen went light on the cheese. For some reason the waiter found this request "interesting". When the pizza arrived, the request had been honored for the most part and allowed for the "zesty" sauce and veggies to express themselves. I give them credit for improving the product and listening to the consumer.

But I think you hit the nail on the head, Matchbox is a mid-tier joint, so it fits in well in Capitol Hill and to some extent in DC in general which is full of so-so joints. Part of the appeal is the dearth of decent places to eat that are modern and feel welcoming. The owners certainly have done a pretty good job of designing an inviting joint. And for much of DC, appearances are more important than substance. Plus, Matchbox is new to Cap. Hill so that is a big factor.

If you want to dine in a modern setting and enjoy decent/good but not great food, then Matchbox will suffice. Like much of Eastern Market/Barracks Row eateries, you won't find excellent food.
Could probably do without the anti-District provincialism, but Matt S nails it. There's a huge pent-up demand, and little competition in that space. Where else are you going to go? Try getting a seat during the busy hours in any of the new places on H St. It's the same story.

Funny that it's such a mystery to Carman, though. As if folks walking 5-6 blocks to Matchbox on 8th could opt to walk to Chinatown or Columbia Heights.
I went to Matchbox's downtown location 2 weeks ago based on reputation, hype, and probably moreso because I was effing hungry and wanted pizza, which is probably my first mistake being downtown and all. It took less than 3 minutes with the menu to realize that hype was all this place had going for it. Strip that away and your left with overpriced, silly-topped pizzas and even more overpriced beers in an atmosphere that feels more like The Ground Round than a fun pizza joint. I bailed before a waiter even said hello and found a better meal at Ella's around the corner. Still not great, but satisfying, and much more appropriately priced. I'll make sure I'm in a different part of town the next time I want pizza.
And yes, grammar police, I realize it should be "you're." But I am still working through my hang over so let me spare you the digital ink, acknowledge my lesser place in the cosmic order, and kindly ask you to leave me the hell alone.

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