By  on May 12, 1994

I knew I had a built-in clientele," Billy Gilroy is saying at his brand new restaurant, Match, as the phone is ringing off the hook at 10 a.m. "But even I'm a bit overwhelmed by this response."

No one else seems the least bit surprised that Gilroy's newest venture, with chef Chris Heyman (of Jerry's 103 and Odeon) and a third partner, businessman Peter Fay, is taking off like the proverbial house on fire. Gilroy practically has a pedigree in downtown restaurants: he managed La Gamelle, Nell's, the Odeon, and he co-owns Lucky Strike.

"We tried to open quietly," he says of Match, which has one of SoHo's best locations, on Mercer between Houston and Prince. "We only invited friends the first week -- but by the third night, we had 200 reservations for one night." Most nights, the owners stick around till 4 a.m., which is when the crowd finally clears out. Calvin and Kelly Klein hosted a little dinner there Wednesday night. And after being open only two weeks, Match has already pulled in the likes of Oliver Stone, Thierry Mugler, Kate Moss and Johnny Depp, Christy, Naomi, Isaac Mizrahi, Jim Jarmusch, Brian McNally, John McEnroe and Quentin Crisp.

Foodies, like Le Bernardin's Gilbert Le Coze and Gael Greene, have also dropped in, along with what Gilroy calls "the neighborhood people."

"There's a certain magic that has to happen between the tables and the lights -- it's a spark, an energy. That's the only thing you can never be certain of. Luckily, it seems to have ignited. We knew we worked really hard on the design and the food."

The menu is a hybrid of SoHo hamburger joint and L.A. multicultural restaurant: spicy duck pizza with shiitake mushrooms, vegetable plates, grilled tunaburgers, sweet potato fries, and the customers' favorite: a "raw bar" brimming with oysters and clams. "It's modern American with a strong Pacific Rim influence," Heyman says. "It's what American food is now: ethnic. It's sort of -- sexy food -- date food. It's the favorite food of the crowd that'll come here."

Why did Gilroy want to one-up Lucky Strike, just a few blocks away? "Match is more about the food," he explains. "When I opened Lucky Strike, the European bistro was what the whole scene was about. I wanted this restaurant to be about SoHo -- the artists, the cast iron, the history."Match is housed in the old Benjamin Electric building, and the partners have kept the old steel beams and fixtures. It's on two levels: the upstairs restaurant and a downstairs bar and hang-out area, where live deejays play jazz and soul. "We had this idea of 'hard and soft,"' says Gilroy. "Industrial - but warm. A place you'd want to stay for hours." Everything -- from the tables to the lights and dishes -- was designed by local artists. A huge John Chamberlain industrial sculpture dominates the main room. The downstairs is indigenous to what Heyman calls "heavy lounging -- it's relaxing, but I see people sort of grooving in their seats."

"This place is for SoHo, which is my home," says Gilroy. "Creative people, sometimes wealthy people, who dress casually. They're extremes," he smiles, "and I'm an extremist myself. In fact, I'm a hedonist." What's he going to do when the clamor starts to get extreme? Already, it's almost impossible to get in on a weekend.

"Whatever happens, " he says, "we won't let Match get unpleasant. We're trying to keep it understated. In the end, I know what I do: I serve soup and sandwiches, and I just try to do it well." That's not so extreme.

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