- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The men behind Matchbox are full of fire. Deep in a recession, they spent a year and many dollars to restore and expand an old vending-machine warehouse on Barracks Row on Capitol Hill into a restaurant, using reclaimed wood, exposed brick and a bar made from recycled shuffleboards.

It looks like their fire is catching on.

The restaurant, which is a sister restaurant to the original Matchbox in Chinatown, opened Dec. 5 and has had a full house since then.

“So far it’s exceeding all expectations,” co-owner Drew Kim says.

On a recent Sunday night, for example — when most restaurants along the Eighth Street Southeast stretch (south of the Eastern Market Metro) were half-empty — the spacious Matchbox, with its 16-foot ceilings and room for 130 guests, had a short wait and stayed busy until 10 p.m.

The menu is the same as at its Chinatown counterpart: heavy on wood-fired pizza, miniburgers, fried chicken two ways, homemade macaroni and cheese and seared sea scallops with herb risotto.

The selection of salads for the health conscious is fresh and varied and includes the generous and tasty Matchbox chopped salad: diced tomatoes, bacon, onions, pasta and a creamy vinaigrette. It comes in two sizes: large $10 (enough for a meal) and small $6 (a perfect appetizer).

The price is right, which is part of Matchbox’s success. The owners have found the intersection — or sweet spot — of good quality and reasonable prices. A recent, way-too-big meal for two was about $90, and if you really price things out, you could come away spending half of that and still include a yummy pint of Chimay, a trendy Belgian beer and Matchbox best-seller.

It’s part of the business plan, providing moderate prices (no entrees are more than $30; most of them are in the low $20s) and a wide range of culinary offerings, from an oven-dried tomato and fresh buffalo mozzarella pizza that arrives sizzling hot to bacon-wrapped shrimp and grits. Mr. Kim calls it “casting a wide net.”

Besides attractive prices and food offerings, Matchbox offers friendly service that’s knowledgeable about wines and beers and accommodating for strange orders, such as fitting three pizzas on a small table.

The space is appealing, and roomier than other Hill restaurants except, maybe, Sonoma Restaurant and Wine Bar a few blocks west.

The Hill Matchbox has a hip urban feel without being obnoxious: The dance music pumps through the speakers at a reasonable sound level, and young things are at the bar watching one of three flat-screen televisions. Much of the clientele, especially families and seniors, is from the neighborhood.

In good times and bad times, Matchbox should glow brightly.

RESTAURANT: Matchbox, 521 Eighth St. SE; 202/548-0369

HOURS: 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11:30 p.m. Friday, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $6 to $15; entrees $11 to $29; desserts $8 to $15

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Limited street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Eastern Market

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