Casual Chic in Penn Quarter: Meatballs

Meatballs offers (what else?) meatballs, including crab and lentil varieties.

Photograph by Scott Suchman

The counter-service eatery Meatballs opened in DC’s Penn Quarter in November amid some excitement. Single-concept restaurants such as New York’s Macbar, which serves myriad varieties of mac and cheese, have done gangbuster business. Plus, chef Michel Richard–the James Beard Award-bearing mastermind behind Citronelle, Central, and Michel–had attached his name to the project, his first super-casual endeavor.

The crowds have been piling in at midday, ordering spherical crabcakes atop creamy polenta and lentil rounds squished into sandwiches. “You guys have what America wants!” one suited man shouted out on a recent Tuesday. “I couldn’t wait to get in here.” He asked the staff for ideas of what to order, but not much was forthcoming–employees at Meatballs still have their hands full working out who’s responsible for what.

Here’s why that’s a problem: The menu is divided into four categories, from meat choice to toppings. You choose an item from each, moving down the line as you would at Subway or Chipotle. But at those places, it’s hard to wind up with something really wrong. At Meatballs, it’s riskier. If a sandwich of lentil balls, marinara, and provolone sounds like it might taste bad, that’s because it does, just as crab balls on a bed of lettuce don’t work when covered in pepper sauce and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

For the time being, the best way to order is conservatively and with expectations in check. Try chicken balls over pasta dressed in a morel-studded mushroom sauce or a lamb-ball sub–either with marinara and sweet peppers or with tandoori sauce and a drizzle of tzatziki.

See more pictures of Meatballs in our early look at the restaurant here.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.