The Washington Post

Matchbox near U St. corridor

Entering the cavern of bricks and booths, I nod in recognition. Young as it is, the latest addition to the U Street corridor is already so familiar to me, I know what to expect at the area’s fourth Matchbox before I even get to my table.

Will the cocktail list flag “manly” and “girlie” drinks? Uh-huh. Will the servers promote one of the kitchen’s success stories with shirts that read 3-6-9? Sure enough, mini-burgers continue to fly off the grill and be presented in three portion sizes. Raised metal stands continue to support another signature of the brand — thin-crusted, smoke-singed pizza — and table tops embedded with genuine matchboxes carry on a design detail of the growing enterprise.

But the new branch, created from what began as a bowling alley and billiards hall in 1907, veers from the tried-and-true recipe with several fresh ideas. One is a chef’s table, made from recycled wood, that overlooks the kitchen. A separate door for carryout orders (on T Street) is another novelty. Co-owner Ty Neal says the 220-seat project with the exposed steel beams represents “everything we’ve learned about Matchbox in 10 years.”

The trick to being seated in one of the restaurant’s two “floating” box tables upstairs? “A phone call,” shares Neal, who helpfully divulges their table numbers: 300 and 330.

Stray from what has made Matchbox famous and you can find flaws. This is not the place you want to order tuna tartare (tired) or spinach salad (dry) or ask for a special spirit (unless you have the patience of Job to wait for your cocktail on a Friday night).

Executive chef Jeffrey Richardson, who has worked at all the area Matchboxes, says that “we don’t want to be just a burger-and-pizza joint.” He makes a strong case for the company’s cause with his roast chicken, a winning combination of succulent bird, dreamy mashed potatoes and collard greens made kicky with vinegar and smoky with bacon.

1901 14th St. NW., $12 to $14; entrees, $14 to $28.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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