Chef Matt Hill wants the new, family-friendly restaurant he opened in Arlington Heights in early October to be like one of those choose-your-own adventure books. The menu at Ruthie’s All-Day loosely follows the old, Southern “meat and three” format. Diners can pick a main entree, plucked from a Argentine-style wood-burning hearth or a top-of-the-line smoker, then debate between a long list of sides, from charred kimchi dirty rice to a casserole-style mac and cheese made from his grandmother Ruthie’s recipe.
“I love barbecue restaurants, but I wanted to broaden what that meant,” Hill says.
Ruthie’s offers smoked pork shoulder, brisket, and sticky spare ribs inspired by his North Carolina roots. But there’s also a branzino that’s finished on the wood-fired grill, a smoked honeynut squash for vegetarians, and a citrus-marinated half chicken with raisin caper vinaigrette. Shareable starters, salads, sandwiches, and desserts fill out the rest of the menu.
Hill, who was recently the culinary director for the Arlington restaurant group behind Liberty Tavern, Northside Social, Liberty BBQ, and Lyon Hall, lives near the restaurant with his wife and two boys. He wants Ruthie’s to be a destination for families. Nobody should bat an eyelash if there’s a sippy cup on the table next to a craft cocktail.
“Family restaurants aren’t always up to the standards that we want,” Hill says. “We want families to come. We want it to be affordable. We want you to be able to bring your kids.”
Ruthie’s All Day (3411 Fifth Street South) is open for dinner to start, and the plan is to soon add breakfast with Counter Culture Coffee, fluffy pancakes, and biscuit sandwiches. Then the restaurant will bring on burgers, salads, and sandwiches for lunch over the next few weeks. Both can be ordered to go from a counter, and there’s a full-service dinner during the weekdays. Full-service brunch will run on the weekends.
This is the first restaurant for Hill and partner Todd Salvadore, most recently of Robert Wiedmaier’s Michelin-starred Siren. Hill and Salvadore met while working at Charlie Palmer Steak DC. Drew Allen is the chef de cuisine.
Hill and Salvadore were looking for an Arlington restaurant with a particular set of attributes. They needed a space with parking (very helpful for parents) and a one-story building so Hill could have the proper ventilation for open-fire cooking.
A historic building that used to house a chocolate factory and, in the 1950s, an ice cream shop named Mr. W’s in the 1950s fit the bill. Hill says the space has been everything from a Blockbuster to a DMV to a Sherwin-Williams store. The facade has been revived to its original 1950s look, per the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service. Inside, there’s a bit of nostalgia, with vintage wallpaper, brass accents, and grayish green paint. There are 110 seats inside the restaurants with two private dining rooms, and outside, there’s a near 70-seat outdoor patio.
The kitchen is tricked out with an Argentine-style gaucho grill from NorCal Ovenworks and a wood-burning smoker from J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas. That’s one thing that sets his barbecue apart, Hill says. He started off making pulled pork as a cook in North Carolina before heading to New York for culinary school.
“It’s all 100 percent wood-burning,” Hill says. “There’s not a lot of people doing that, it takes more work, it takes more craft, it takes more time.”
Barbecue also happens to travel well for takeout, which is a plus in these to-go times. Including a takeout counter and outdoor seating was always in the plan for Ruthie’s All Day. Both are indispensable for restaurants in 2020.
“It’s a brave new world,” Hill says about opening during the pandemic. “It’s not without its challenges, but I think people crave this kind of food, they crave something new right now, because there’s not a lot of restaurants that are opening.”