May 4, 2011
Sometimes I fantasize about opening a restaurant, despite having neither culinary training nor an actual desire to work in—much less own—an eating establishment. Still, I like to imagine what I would serve, how it would look, and what I would call it. For instance, there is a one-room brick former schoolhouse for sale in my small town that a neighbor has pointed out would make a great space for a café. So I started imagining an interior full of old chalkboards, and menus with covers like the old black-and-white composition books. A collection of vintage lunch boxes on the wall. We would serve from-scratch versions of Hostess chocolate cupcakes (the kind with the white icing curlicues). The name? Maybe Lunch. Or Recess.
Gabrielle Hamilton, a New York City chef and writer, describes a similar daydream scenario in her new memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, which has been getting good reviews (deservedly, in my opinion). Except that Hamilton had the inclination to act on her fantasy, and the talent and skill to back it up. Presented with the opportunity to open a restaurant, she mulls the negatives—that her cooking experience is all with catering companies, not restaurants; that she has no idea how to run a business; that she doesn’t have a dime to invest—but ultimately gives in to the “electric hum of ‘rightness’ that had taken hold” in her gut. She writes, “To imagine that a newly jogged memory about the few dishes and food experiences I had managed to collect at my mother’s apron strings would be enough to sustain a restaurant would be naive. And to open a restaurant with nothing more than an idea for a menu, a clean kitchen, and an apt name would have been a certain failure.”
Prune, the East Village restaurant she opened in 1999, was not a failure, of course. But the name, I wondered—how did she come up with that? Prunes don’t feature on the menu. Even prunes don’t want to be called that anymore. Yet somehow the name seems right, from what I know of the restaurant (though I haven’t eaten there).
I read on the restaurant website that Prune was Hamilton’s childhood nickname, but I contacted her publicist to find out more. Hamilton replied by email, ” ‘Prune’ was indeed my childhood nickname, though I am not sure why! I called my restaurant ‘Prune’ because it referred back to the time of my childhood and the way we ate then—simply, quite well, with the enormous influence of my French mother, whose routine habit involved the garden, the farm, the use of the whole animal, and so on.”
There are many paths to restaurant ownership, and these days one of them is doing well on a cooking challenge TV show. Mike Isabella, a runner-up on the latest season of Top Chef, is about to open his first restaurant, in Washington, D.C. Like Hamilton, the name he chose has personal significance. “Graffiato is Italian for scratched or etched,” he explained in an email. “Roman soldiers used to use their swords and knives to carve on walls. It was the original form of graffiti, art and expression. For me, graffiti, artwork and tattoos are an expression, just as food is an expression. Graffiato is my expression of food—it’s my interpretation of the evolution of traditional Italian food I enjoyed as a kid to the modern Italian-inspired food I now create as a professional chef.”
It’s hard to say what makes a successful restaurant name, but I think being memorable helps. When Yassmin Sarmadi opened a restaurant in L.A.’s newly hip downtown arts district two and a half years ago, she wanted a name that would be “playful and thought-provoking,” she says. The restaurant, in a once-industrial neighborhood, is in a former National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) warehouse built in 1925, with the original loading bays, brick floors and steel columns. She named it Church & State. “We are actually a very traditional French bistro, but I didn’t want a traditional French name. I wanted an American name. But the French were the first to separate church and state, so there was still a tie.”
An evocative name can also go a long way. The French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s acclaimed restaurant in California’s Napa Valley, comes from the former use of the building (and was even used as the name of a previous restaurant on the site), but he was wise to keep the name. Without knowing anything else about the place, you can imagine the food and the vibe—fresh, classic, French, luxurious but not precious.
I like restaurant names that are clever but not gimmicky. One of my favorites is for a neighborhood place near where I live, in the Adirondack Mountains. It’s located in the town of Minerva and is called The Owl at Twilight, a reference to the mythological symbol of the Roman goddess Minerva.
Then there are names that make you cringe. There are a lot of reasons I wouldn’t want to eat at a Hooters, and the name embodies all of them. At least it tells you exactly what you’re in for.
What’s your favorite restaurant name?
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