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Photo by Brian Kaiser
Photo by Brian Kaiser

Drunk History

I need to make a spiritual commitment to myself to stop doing after hours at the bar.

This what I said to myself at 5 p.m., still hungover and struggling on two hours of sleep. Earlier I called in sick*, watched a documentary about an evil plastic surgeon and told my cat I hated him for looking at me.

But that place I’m supposed to write about, the bar with the really long name, opens in an hour. I have to get ready. I’m not in the mood; I’m delirious and irritable. I’m just sitting at my desk whimpering in my hands. But I have one job to do tonight, and that is to live to tell the tale. I’m going to fulfill my promise and go to the bar with the really long name. The House of a Thousand Toothpicks? No, no…The House of a Thousand Matches?

The place is actually called The Light of Seven Matchsticks and it’s a basement speakeasy that opened last month below Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza in Worthington.

I’m glad I lived to tell the tale…

The modern speakeasy is not necessarily a new concept.

The craze began a couple of decades ago, with recent institutions like The Violet Hour in Chicago and New York’s Please Don’t Tell in the East Village gaining national acclaim over the last six years. What we now know as the “craft cocktail” has taken cues from prohibition-era mixology, since the harshness of bootlegged spirits during prohibition required some impressive preparations to make the booze drinkable. Here in town, the delicious vintage cocktails at Mouton and the strong, sexy bar program at Curio have both given Columbus a taste of the forbidden. But The Light of Seven Matchsticks is the first to take the concept literally underground.

To their credit, the entrance is legitimately inconspicuous; when you arrive at Natalie’s, you notice a gate that hangs slightly ajar and the entranceway down the steps is plain and dark. It looks the same as it always has, having walked past that gate several times over the years. When you arrive, there is a frosted glass door with a small sign etched into the glass and a small peephole. I did look through it, just to be sure I really was in the right place.

Is there a secret knock? A password? I just opened the door and walked through without incident—but it was fun for a second to adopt the true speakeasy vibe.

The place certainly looks good. Dimly-lit, rich wood interior, no windows. Ragtime floating through the air. There are no tables—just a bar and velvety booths big enough to conceive a child in, which is notable due to the relative smallness of the place. I noticed a party of six, maybe seven sitting quite comfortably in one of them. When you walk in, there is a lounge immediately to your right—a dark corner with a weird little window in the wall and built-in bookshelves.

About those books.

Initially I thought they were just a part of the ambiance. But, on page 166 is where you’ll find the hidden menu. Guests waiting in the lounge can scribble a drink order on a library card and slip it through a slot, and give two firm knocks to get a drink delivered through that weird little window while they wait.

Secrets!

I found a seat at the end of the bar and scanned the drink list. There’s an extensive bar program divided into three categories: Classical Heroes are the classic cocktails, Meeting the Mentors are prohibition-style cocktails with an updated twist and the Profound Dream State cocktails are, as the menu says, “for the Adventuresome of Spirit,” considering the integration of ingredients like tomatillo and bell pepper. My bartender suggested I try The Laphroaig Project, a scotch-based cocktail with green and yellow Chartreuse, Luxardo, peach bitters and lemon, to give it shape. Delicious; smoky, lemony, sweet and much more delicate than I expected. I could feel the black cloud over my head dissolving into a fine, inspired mist. Saint Bibiana was smiling down on me, for the time being at least. The food was soon to take me over that sweet hangover waterfall.

The Light of Seven Matchsticks’ menu is comprised of a few well-executed small plates. First, I tried the Pork Ribs ($10), which were braised with a slightly sweet Korean barbecue sauce and dusted with crushed almonds. You also get a nice fresh red cabbage, radish and snap pea slaw on the side. The ribs were beautifully tender—I barely waved my fork over them and the meat was falling off the bone. When the couple sitting next to me saw this, they immediately ordered a plate for themselves. Next, I tried the Salmon Rillettes ($12): shredded hot-smoked salmon, lemon and creme fraiche packed into a jar topped with clarified butter, served with avocado and baguette. Rillettes—a pate of shredded or minced meat combined in fat—can be heavy, but the salmon was light and flaky, with the lemon adding overall brightness. I didn’t mix in all of the clarified butter, which you could certainly do if you want a richer, fattier bite.

My plan was to eat a couple things, drink a couple things, look the place over and be out of there in less than an hour.

This is notable only because it isn’t what happened. Once I got settled a bit, I found my bartender all too engaging. After a couple of segues, we were having a puzzlingly familiar conversation, which led to a spirited conversation with the sweet couple sitting next to me. When they left, a man sidled up next to me and ordered a Manhattan and almost instantly struck up a conversation with me. I stayed and talked to him for another hour; it was his 60th birthday (which I couldn’t believe) and we discovered we both lived in Yellow Springs and knew many of the same people. I walked in a pouty stranger with horse blinders on, and emerged three hours later, in euphoria. The charm of this place isn’t just the booze—which was good—or the food—also good. It’s the people.

Perhaps that’s the true secret of The Light of Seven Matchsticks—there’s a night for you here that you may not expect. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good secret—but some secrets are just better spilt. •

*Calling in sick for me is picking up a banana from my fruit bowl and barking expletives into it, just so we’re clear.

The Light of Seven Matchsticks is located below Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza at 5601 N High St, Worthington 43085. First come, first serve.

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