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Matchbox No More
As Matchbox’s name suggests, size is a big part of its personality. Its Web site spells out the restaurant’s challenge: “Build an interesting restaurant in a vintage urban building 15 feet wide and three stories tall.” The text is accompanied by a photo of the petite Matchbox pizzeria, with office space to the left and a parking lot to the right.
It turns out that’s merely a baby picture. Soon after Matchbox opened in 2003, its landlord set about building out the back alley and parking lot. The resulting structure now houses Matchbox’s 150 new seats and includes a patio area, an atrium, and a private dining room with its own bar. The growth spurt has tripled the capacity of the once-wee “vintage pizza bistro.”
The Matchbox owners didn’t always have their eye on the extra real estate. “I think the plans had been made for [the landlord] to do something with that parcel of land before we even became tenants,” says co-owner Perry Smith. “She wanted to put a free-standing restaurant in there.”
In Matchbox’s first year, staff were more focused on operations than on expansion, says Smith. But when the first-come-first-served pizzeria began doling out up-to-two-hour waits and turning down three to four group bookings a day, he says, the extra footage started looking mighty attractive. “Demand seemed so high that we decided that we needed to be the tenant over there,” he says.
Though Smith declines to share actual figures, he allows that the space was initially a “shell” and that Matchbox had to “blow through some walls,” build a new kitchen, buy a new pizza oven, install all of the electrical and plumbing, and double its staff. “I don’t like to throw those numbers around,” he says, “but it wasn’t cheap.” He admits that Matchbox folks are suffering a fair amount of “buildout hangover.”
It’s an investment Smith expects to pay off by opening up “a second tier of business” for the restaurant: private parties. Matchbox is easing into its bigger britches, though, taking only one 10-to-15-person group reservation at lunch and one at dinner. And the new space has opened up gradually, over the course of a few weeks; it’s been designed so that sections can be made available and closed off as needed.
“We don’t know what the next step is,” says Smith, surmising that Matchbox may one day switch from walk-in seating to OpenTable.com reservations. But “we don’t want to go too far too early,” he says, “because that just makes people mad.”
When Pepe Montesinos opened Enriqueta’s Mexican restaurant in Georgetown in 1978, he says, there was no store in the area at which he could get ingredients. So he opened his own.
It all started with a trip to Chicago. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Montesinos. “There was like a little Mexico in the middle of nowhere.” He started hauling truckloads of goods from Chicago to Washington; as a solution to the problem of where to hold all of the stuff, he opened Mexican grocery store Mixtec in Adams Morgan in 1980.
Mixtec supplied Enriqueta’s, he says, but it “was barely keeping afloat.” Soon he began selling prepared foods from behind the counter, introducing the neighborhood to tacos al carbón. “Nobody knew about it,” he says. “Everybody started copying me.” The food made a good complement to Acapulco, a bar down the road that attracted a small Mexican community, and provided new flavors for those who didn’t want to shell out at the more upscale Enriqueta’s.
“I predicted when I was in college that Mexican cuisine…would be the big impact on everything,” says Montesinos. “We never actually based our success on Latin people.” As the trend grew along with the area’s influx of gringos, he converted Mixtec into a sit-down restaurant, eventually expanding into the lot next door in the early ’90s.
When he bought the parcel from Estuardo Rodriguez, Montesinos joked with his friend that he’d like to buy the space next to it, as well, in which the Rodriguez family ran a travel agency. “He said to me, ‘Pepe, are you crazy?’” laughs Montesinos, but the advent of such Internet travel sites as Travelocity and Priceline eventually made the offer viable. The Rodriguezes sold to Montesinos in July.
And his plans for the space? A grocery store and deli. The outlet, set to open either this month or next, will sell packaged Mexican foods, cheeses, sausages, and dried herbs and spices. A hot counter near the front window will house stews, moles, and fresh tortillas to be sold by the pound; tortas will be assembled in the back.
Montesinos says that the idea to reopen a grocery store was “always there.” He also talks enthusiastically about the possibility of franchising, Mixtec’s soon-to-be-launched weekend brunches, and a book he’s writing on the history of Mexican food in the District. “I’m not the best businessman,” he admits, “because I am very romantic.”
Good Night, and Gravlax.
When W Domku opened in Petworth in spring 2005, chef Eric Evans was a large part of the multi-culti-community charm of the place. A Petworth-born African-American who spent time as a child in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, he seemed an apt choice for an Asian-American-owned, Scandinavian/Eastern European restaurant in the heart of an increasingly mixed neighborhood.
However, as of “a couple weeks ago,” according to owner Kera Carpenter, Evans is no longer at Domku. It was “just time to move on,” she says. “No big gossip.”
Carpenter has decided against hiring a new chef, overseeing the kitchen herself and hiring a new kitchen manager to handle the cooking. “At this point, I didn’t feel like I really needed [a chef],” she says. “I feel like I needed some more control of the kitchen.”
“I definitely don’t mean this to seem like I am saying Eric was useless,” she adds.
Other than the upcoming Oct. 17 shift to a fall/winter menu, there will be no changes to Domku’s offerings. “The menu has always been mine,” she says. “The food has remained the same. I’ve always tried to maintain authenticity….Most people who come here haven’t noticed any difference at all.”
When asked how to reach Evans, Carpenter says, “I don’t know where he is right now. His phone number does not seem to be working….I’m sure he’ll be by at some point to pick up his stuff.”—Anne Marson