Matchbooks are definitely on the endangered list. It used to be that every restaurant had a bowl of matches on their front counter. Now, paper matchbook marketing has all but disappeared, although you can sometimes score wooden matchboxes at expensive steakhouses (I guess so you will have something to light your cigar with). Otherwise you are pretty much out of luck if you need something to light your dinner candles with.
Only a few years ago, matches were a standard wedding favour and it only just occurred to me that they had a symbolic as well as functional purpose. I was cleaning up the far reaches of the basement a while ago and came across several books of matches from long ago nuptials: Ellen and Morris, Cathy and Tom, Angela and Steven. In several cases the matches survived long after the union. There is probably someone out there who is making a good living creating ironic works of art from defunct wedding matches. Too bad it isn’t me.
I also ran across a matchbook from a restaurant called Benito’s that used to be the fanciest restaurant in Kitchener-Waterloo. They had tablecloths and everything. For some reason a bunch of us decided that we should squander some of our hard earned student stipend on a visit to Benito’s, perhaps to bolster our sophistication quotient. I think we were also curious about what fine dining was actually like.
I earned my Benito’s cash typing an essay for my friend Gerald. I think I charged a dollar a page, which was quite lucrative. It was a history essay about the 1st World War. I don’t think it was really my fault that “Colonel von Lettow” looked instead like “Colonel von Zettow” in his less than tidy handwriting. It also wasn’t my fault that he found it necessary to refer to the Colonel by his full name in every second sentence as I was not being paid to edit the essay. Anyhow, that’s what Whiteout was for and I did not refund a single cent of the $14 he paid me.
We made a reservation and dressed up to the fanciness standard promised by Benito’s, and Gerald, Verne, Ruth and I presented ourselves at the restaurant at the appointed time. We sat down and were given our menus. We were each paying our own tab for dinner and the shared cost of a bottle of wine. This is where Ruth and I ran into a problem. We knew that Benito’s was expensive, but we did not have an endless budget to spend – and there were no prices on our menus! We each thought this was probably standard practice at expensive restaurants, along the lines of ‘if you have to ask the price you can’t afford it’. We didn’t want to call attention to our alarm at the lack of prices while the waiter was hovering around, so we stuck with chicken, knowing it was usually the cheapest thing on the menu.
After we had ordered and the waiter was safely out of earshot, we asked the guys how much they thought our meals were going to cost so we could be prepared to wash dishes if necessary. Surprisingly, they were very knowledgeable about the cost of everything we had ordered, and very puzzled about our cluelessness (even though we were definitely not math majors). It turned out that a defining feature of establishments such as Benito’s was two sets of menus: one for the men with prices on it, and one for the women without.
That’s the first and only time I have had a ‘priceless’ menu, which either means the practice has gone the way of the elbow-length white gloves, or probably more correctly indicates the type of restaurants I have spent most time in.