By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Anton “Tony” Schabas immigrated to the United States in 1908 after working as a cook on a German ship – and then jumping off its side while anchored near New Jersey when labor restrictions prevented those onboard from leaving. The Austrian fugitive swam to shore and subsequently built a life for himself as a pastry chef, working over the years as an instructor at upscale hotels and for notable clients, including President John F. Kennedy.
A presidential candidate at the time, Kennedy held a campaign event for which Schabas made rye bread. Upon trying the bread, Kennedy dubbed it “the best rye bread he ever had,” according to Schabas’ grandson, Matt Sloan. Once he was elected president in 1961, Kennedy requested that Schabas send it to the White House on a regular basis.
It’s stories like these and Schabas’ overall legacy that inspired Sloan’s own interest in the restaurant industry, which he’s been working in since age 18. On Wednesday, Sloan opened a new Del Ray eatery called Matt & Tony’s – an eponymous nod to his late great-grandfather.
“I said if I ever opened a restaurant I’d want to name it after him because it’s a cool story and [it’s] interesting to me, and it’s fun to tell,” Sloan said. “My dad and I would spend years talking about, ‘Where was he [at this point] again?’ or ‘When did he make this famous bread?’ And so just growing up we just told the stories. Especially when I got into the industry, I always was so curious just how his accomplishments went.”
Matt & Tony’s, located at 1501 Mt. Vernon Ave., had its soft opening last weekend, but for Sloan, the process leading up to it started years ago in Michigan, where he was raised and where he studied business and hospitality.
Upon later relocating to the D.C. area, Sloan worked with Matchbox Food Group, Daikaya Group and Born Hospitality. He then worked with Alexandria Restaurant Partners for various businesses, including Ada’s on the River and Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sloan, like many people, reflected on his values, priorities and longterm goals. With a nudge of encouragement from his wife Tina, Sloan decided to take the leap toward one of his childhood dreams: opening a restaurant of his own.
“With COVID, I think everybody was rethinking what they want to do with their time and their lives,” Tina Sloan said. “This was such a longtime dream, this is really Matt’s baby. It’s something we’ve been talking about for years.”
Aware of Sloan’s aspirations, Dave Nicholas, Scott Shaw and David Clapp from ARP told him about an empty Del Ray building they owned that was once the old FireFlies restaurant and, most recently, Charlie’s on the Avenue. According to Sloan, ARP didn’t have time to run another business because it had just opened Barca Pier & Wine Bar, but thought he would be a perfect fit for a restaurant along Mount Vernon Avenue.
Sloan drove by to check it out and was instantly hooked.
“After I saw it, I was like, ‘This would be awesome,’” Sloan said. “I always wanted to be in a neighborhood spot, I wanted to know all my neighbors. It’s a great spot.”
Sloan locked down the location and spent the next few months ironing out the details. Offering an approachable atmosphere and all-day brunch, for example, were just a few of the aspects he prioritized when conceptualizing the space.
He also wanted to restructure the building into something more contemporary. This included adding glass to the already existing vestibule to “create something nice and elevated, but still comfortable” as well as altering the bar area by implementing overhangs and swapping out tiles.
“[We wanted] to just make a cool, different vibe that Del Ray didn’t have yet,” Sloan said, attributing much of the renovation’s success to designer David Chennault, who is also responsible for designing The Majestic Cafe in Old Town.
As Sloan puts it, Chennault helped to “really transform the space with the story of Matt & Tony’s.”
Another helping hand with incorporating the eatery’s theme belongs to chef Todd Miller, who, like Schabas, specializes in pastries. Many of Schabas’ recipes, such as his biscuits and breakfast bread, are featured on the menu and made in-house from scratch. Schabas’ legendary rye bread recipe is still in the works but “not quite ready” yet, Sloan said.
The menu also features highlights like a cornflake crusted French toast made with maple-praline syrup and strawberries; sweet potato ricotta donuts topped with warm spices and cinnamon caramel; and scotch eggs wrapped in chicken chorizo, breaded with panko bread crumbs and drizzled with chimichurri mayonnaise.
For a healthier alternative, there are also crispy Brussel sprouts with hot honey and charred lemon, as well as various salads, including the apple fennel and the gem lettuce caesar, which is served with rye croutons, shaved parmesan and a soft boiled egg. And those who are gluten-free might also be interested in trying the masa pancakes, which Tina Sloan called “oddly satisfying” because of the balance of savory and sweet flavors.
“It’s a very simple dish. We just want good food, so it’s not overly complicated,” Sloan said.
The whole process has been a learning experience for Sloan, who said he’s most familiar with customer service and front of house operations. He’s worked closely with the kitchen crew to fill in the gaps, tweak the menu and make any final touches in time for opening.
“We’re just making sure that the menu gives options. We can always build and grow the menu, but giving options to the community [and] also stuff that we know we can execute and be delicious is a big part of it,” Sloan said.
Some of the notes and changes came from friends and family in attendance at last weekend’s soft opening, who filled out postcards – which Tina Sloan had reprinted from letters Schabas wrote – with feedback about their experience at Matt & Tony’s.
“One lady was like, ‘I’m going to need a few more postcards and another pen,’” Sloan said. “It was a lot of positives, and some things to work on. But you gotta take that stuff. That’s what it’s for: to practice, to learn from your mistakes and to get better.”
Brimming with a mixture of both nerves and excitement, Sloan indicated that he’s mostly just proud of finally realizing a longtime dream and that he looks forward to the future of the restaurant and honoring his great-grandfather’s legacy.
“It’s coming along. I can’t wait,” he said.
Matt & Tony’s is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.