Rich Yost was tidying the boxes in his basement when he happened upon his own personal chunk of Omaha restaurant history.
He had forgotten almost completely about this, forgotten that he had collected tiny, free artifacts for decades and pasted them on a poster board and displayed them proudly for visitors.
He remembered now. The 53-year-old took the poster board upstairs. He peeled the 200-odd matchbooks and business cards off of it. He arranged them on his kitchen table.
He emailed me. “I made a discovery which took me on a trip down memory lane,” he wrote.
Which is how I ended up over at the Yosts' South Omaha home, taking my own personal trip through what Rich calls “the graveyard of Omaha restaurants.”
It's a tour of the Yost family and their food. It's a story, or a series of stories, that isn't really about food at all.
Here is a matchbook from Nasr's, a long-gone restaurant in north-central Omaha. Rich and Kim had their first date here in 1978, when Rich had just graduated from Gross High School. Kim was still a senior at Burke High School.
When the meal ended, Rich grabbed a matchbook, the kind that restaurants all over town used to leave for smokers by the cash register. Rich didn't smoke. He just wanted to keep a memento of his first date with Kim.
Here is a matchbook from the Bellevue Queen Restaurant, where they went before homecoming. Rich drove his mom's car to the Bellevue Queen. The new couple took a photo together outside. Rich is wearing a tuxedo. A mauve-colored tuxedo.
When they left to go the dance, Rich grabbed a matchbook.
Here is a matchbook from Lil' Willy's. They catered Rich and Kim's wedding in 1979. You better believe Rich got a matchbook from there.
Here are several dozen old matchbooks from the era when Rich and Kim were newlyweds.
Every Saturday around 4 p.m., Rich's dad would call.
“Where we going to dinner tonight?” he would ask.
After Saturday night Mass, Rich and Kim and Rich's parents would head to a restaurant of the young couple's choosing. Often the penny-pinching young pair would choose based on whether they could find a 2-for-1 deal in their coupon book.
Angie's, the old downtown steakhouse that's gone now. Kenny's at 72nd and Dodge, which they bulldozed to build that now-defunct Borders bookstore. The Boston Sea Party, which they bulldozed long before they put up a Walmart near 72nd and Center.
They dined at a trio of questionably named restaurants: The Hot Biscuit, now closed. Sambo's at 48th and L, now closed. Mother Tucker's, home of the 99-item salad bar and now closed.
“It was the city's largest salad bar,” Rich says. “That used to be a big deal.”
And here are matchbooks from restaurants where Kim and Rich would go on their anniversary, when they got dressed up and left their three kids at home with a baby sitter.
The Old Market's iconic French Café, where Kim loved the cherries jubilee. The Crystal Tree Dining Room on Dodge Street, which as the name suggests, actually had a crystal tree in the dining room.
The beloved Neon Goose. The Beef Baron, on top of the old Hilton Hotel. Caniglia's Top of the World on top of the Woodmen Tower, where on one anniversary night a motorcyclist smashed into Rich's parked Camaro and flew completely over the car. He was OK, but the Yosts didn't get their anniversary dinner that night.
And Nelson's Landing, nestled by the lake in Regency. The water lapped against the shore. Great food. A serene view.
It was their favorite restaurant, Rich and Kim say. It's the restaurant they miss the most.
Rich and I go through the table filled with matchbooks and business cards. Almost half his collection is business cards because at some point smoking became passé, and most restaurants stopped handing out matchbooks.
That is not the only thing that changed. Eventually Rich and Kim stopped going to dinner with Rich's parents. Rich's dad passed away a couple of years ago.
Eventually Rich and Kim's three kids grew up and moved away. They used to love the bowling alley next to the Center Mall's restaurant — yes, the Center Mall once had a restaurant.
Eventually Runza Hut became, simply, Runza.
Rich and I count: There are 208 matchbooks and business cards. Only 58 of these restaurants still exist, and many of the survivors are national chains.
Most of the dearly departed are the local joints, the mom-and-pops, the Italian steakhouses or Chinese joints or white-tablecloth supper clubs, which had their moment and then vanished from everywhere except for Rich's matchbook collection and his memory.
A lot has changed since that first date at Nasr's in 1978, Rich and Kim think. But at least one thing has survived.
Last Saturday, before Mass, Kim asked Rich, “Where are we going to dinner tonight?”
They decided on Ingredient at One Pacific Place. They went. And after they wrapped up their leftovers and headed for the door, Rich ducked back inside and grabbed a business card. So he'd remember.
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See more photos from Rich Yost's collection and share your memories of old Omaha restaurants on Omavore, Sarah Baker Hansen's food blog.