There’s a billboard on Route 9, just south of downtown Rhinebeck, urging motorists to “Stay nice…” Pictured is an open box of matches, heads ignited, with a grill set over the cumulative flame. It’s an advertisement for the Matchbox Café, just ten seconds up the road – as in “Put your blinker on now.”
The curious Café in the shadow of the billboard and surrounded by the lot for an auto-repair concern is little bigger than a breadbox. It was a hair salon, among other things, before falling into disrepair; the stone building had to be gutted to make way for a grill. Red awnings proclaim comfort food and cookies, and the tongue-in-cheekiness lets you know that this ain’t your regular roadside joint.
Prepare to be shocked. It’s like someone spilled a Cadillac trunk’s worth of Manhattan’s finest baked goods across the front counter. There are plates upon platters of cookies the size of fists, packed with chocolate chips, raisins or M & Ms; crumb-covered, crayon-colored red velvet cake; huge chocolate sandwich cookies; magic bars shaggy with coconut; slabs of butter-hued pound cake; stacks of traditional and candy-topped brownies; and majestic carrot cake with cream cheese icing. There’s a savory section showcasing a half-sheet of hulking, golden fried chicken quarters; a pan of Sicilian-style pizza loaded with veggies; and red, white and green lasagna rectangles. It is as cluttered – and as stimulating – as a city street.
Owners Sam and Joann Cohen moved up from Manhattan. They maintain a stake in their original business, Dessert Delivery on East 55th Street, between First and Second Avenues, from whence the bounteous baked goods originate. Signs say that Oprah loves the red velvet cake; the New York Post gave the hot chocolate an award; and Mayor Bloomberg tried to ban the Butterfinger brownies.
So what the heck are they doing in Dutchess County? “I don’t know!” said Joann, eyes wide behind stylish black-and-clear frames. Funny, fun and personable in the way that some City people are, she’s an excellent hostess who asks everyone his or her name, and remembered mine after a week’s absence. Sam, the baker in the family, wears a denim-blue chef’s jacket and serves sit-down clients from a big tray. When he comes through the red door with a gold knob that separates the kitchen from the dining room, it’s like he’s making an entrance on a sitcom set. The clients are co-stars, trading quips with him and one another. The atmosphere is convivial and conducive to conversation, because even if you’re not talking, you’re rubbing elbows.
One workman waiting for a to-go order recommended the shrimp salad. The Chunky Shrimp Salad Sandwich ($9.75) consists of generous hunks of cold shrimp meat dressed lightly in mayo studded with a tiny dice of celery, heaped on a green lettuce leaf blanketing a toasted hot dog bun. Then there is the hand-formed Matchbox Burger ($6.50, cheese +$1), recommended by Joann, who likes it rare, “because the meat tastes so good.” A rare cheeseburger! Be still my poor provincial heart! But sure enough, you won’t be sorry: The beef is top-notch, grass-fed and grain-finished, then freshly ground. It’s served in a paper dish: a fat puck on a potato-bun bottom smeared with mayo. The top of the bun is up like the hood of a car, with a hypnotist’s spiral of ketchup on it.
Before you bite a rare burger, it looks like a regular burger, except with a little blood juice dripping out the side. Bite in, and the entire inside is raw red, and tastes like steak-tartare-meets-’50s-drive-in. Bookending the burger are a pickle spear and skin-on fries stacked like matchsticks, covered with big flakes of salt. They are fried in peanut oil, crisp but not crunchy with creamy middles. This may be the best burger-and-fries combo in the Valley: no bells, no whistles, no kidding.
There’s nothing wild on this menu – just classic dishes done right: omelets, grilled cheese, onion rings, hot dogs, nachos, mac and cheese, lentil soup. There are blackboard specials, like the big juicy steaks served to a pair of thick-necked men sitting at the dessert counter; dessert specials, too. Look for the little sign by the cash register advertising classic New York-style cheesecake hunks for $5. It is perfect, and they keep it that way in the fridge.
A Checkerboard Slice ($2.75) is a great place to start working your way through the catalogue of confections. It’s long strips of vanilla-and-chocolate pound cake fused together by thin layers of chocolate icing, rolled in chocolate cake crumbs and sliced; and if you laid four slices out in a two-by-two square, you could probably play chess. Chocolate-lovers must try the Shmoogie ($2.75), a giant sandwich cookie combining textures both airy and creamy, or the Truffle Brownie ($2.75). A cup of the Really Good Coffee ($1.50 medium, $2 large) is a smooth complement to all.
The Matchbox Café is located at 6242 Route 9 in Rhinebeck. For more information, call Sam and Joann at (845) 876-3911.