What’s in a Name? For Restaurants, Everything.
It could have been called Scotch and Sofa. Or worse: Couch. Those were some of the names that The Fainting Goat owners Greg Algie and Henry Bruce spitballed for their U Street NW restaurant before it opened last winter. The building, after all, once belonged to a home furnishings shop. “In his head, he was just running through a furniture store and started naming things off,” Algie says of his business partner.
Brainstorming with friends over beers during a night of barhopping on 14th Street NW, the group started swapping stories that might evoke better, less upholstery-related ideas. Algie shared how when he was younger, his buddies would tease him for the way he froze up talking to girls in bars by calling him a “fainting goat,” a reference to a breed of myotonic goats that stiffen up and fall over when they’re frightened or panicked.
“Everybody was laughing. It was just funny. And it just clicked with people,” Algie says. “So they were like, ‘That’s it. That’s got to be the name.’”
Restaurateurs often say (though it’s unclear exactly how serious they are) that choosing a name can be one of the hardest parts of opening a new place. The process is fraught with angsty questions: Will there be a trademark conflict? Is the Twitter handle available? Can people pronounce it? And most importantly: Does it capture who we are? Perhaps the pool of options is running dry, because some monikers—Rural Society, Kangaroo Boxing Club, Roofers Union—only seem to be getting wackier and more obscure. Restaurant names are starting to occupy the same lexicographical place once reserved for ridiculous indie band names—or parodies of them.
Coming up with a restaurant or bar name is more an art than a science (and one often fueled by alcohol, given the industry). But restaurateur Paul Ruppert of Petworth Citizen and just-opened French-Japanese restaurant Crane & Turtle says he, at least, has a standard process that takes one to two months. It starts with a one-sentence description of the restaurant and a series of informal brainstorming sessions where no name, no matter how awful it seems, is crossed off. “Sometimes even ridiculous names will lead you to think of other things,” Ruppert points out.
Once he and his colleagues have narrowed the list down to a group that might work, they email it out to at least a dozen friends and family from all walks of life who can lend varying outside perspectives. “That’s helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to clarity,” he says. For his latest venture, Ruppert says he sent out three rounds of emails with different names. Among the rejected finalists: Night Traveler, Flying Crow, Purple Heron, Blossom Dearie, and Red’s Double Arrow.
Ruppert also tries to have a period where he “sits with” a name. With time, it might go out of fashion with someone in the group. Or they might discover another restaurant has a similar name in another city—something which Ruppert says happens quite often. Or there might be some sort of unintended meaning that wasn’t immediately known.
Crane & Turtle, which was ultimately chosen to grace the door, comes from a Japanese fable about “friendships, longevity, and mutual support.” After a great flood, the tale’s crane has nowhere to rest, and the turtle welcomes him on his back. Later, after an awful draught, the crane lifts the turtle to a lake. After coming up with the name by Googling Japanese fables, Ruppert showed it to chef Makoto Hamamura. It turned out that Hamamura’s mother’s name is Tsuru, meaning “crane” in Japanese, and her twin sister is Kame, meaning “turtle.” Ruppert also sees Crane & Turtle as a metaphor for bringing disparate things together. Just as the crane and turtle aren’t animals that typically associate with each other, Hamamura is bringing together two cuisines—French and Japanese—that don’t usually mix.
Nearly every place has a similarly personal story; naming a restaurant isn’t typically something left up to consultants. Some restaurateurs name their establishments after their kids, like Eamonn’s, Restaurant Eve, Casa Luca, and Marcel’s, to name a few. Similarly, Rose’s Luxury is an ode to owner Aaron Silverman’s grandmother.
And like Crane & Turtle, others try to layer in multiple levels of meaning. The trickiest part of the process, says Duke’s Grocery owner Daniel Kramer, is trying to come up with something that “distinguishes you but also in one or two or three words tells people what’s going on.” He and his chef and business partner Alex McCoy say their restaurant represents no fewer than four “Dukes.” First, it’s a wink toward the British, whose eclectic East London cuisine inspired the menu—but with a title that’s not so pretentious as “king” or “prince.” The name is also meant to be a shoutout to notable locals here: jazz icon Duke Ellington and restaurateur Duke Zeibert. “Duke number four is my golden retriever,” Kramer says. The owners could have called the place Duke’s Kitchen & Bar or Duke’s Gastropub, but they settled on “grocery” as a better way to emphasize their market-fresh approach. (They also sell a small selection of local produce.) On a few very rare occasions, though, that’s caused some confusion. “There’s been a couple people when we first opened who were flustered that we didn’t have a full refrigerated dairy section and a butcher shop,” Kramer says.
But a grocery that isn’t really a grocery is nowhere as confusing as the long list of acronym restaurant names that have also become so hip: GBD, DGS, GCDC, BGR, STK, TNT, BLT, and others TBD. Blame it on D.C.’s concentration of initial-happy trade associations and government agencies? Then there was the time restaurateur and chef Jeff Buben claimed he didn’t know what WTF stood for until after he’d committed to using the abbreviated version of Woodward Takeout Food. “[My wife] Sallie told me afterwards,” Buben said upon the place’s opening.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin says he sometimes has more than 100 names in play for one spot. That was the case for Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, which took a year and half to name. Iron Gate was the easiest; a condition of the lease was that they retain the historic title. Although Babin tries to set deadlines for deciding what to call his places, it’s often a last minute decision. The Arsenal, the restaurant at Bluejacket, wasn’t finalized until about 24 hours before a preview party. “We’ve been known to open restaurants without proper signage. That’s because we were having trouble with the name usually,” Babin says.
A simple Google or domain name search is all most restaurateurs need to determine whether they’ll keep a name without any conflicts. But that’s not always foolproof. Babin initially planned to call his meat-centric Penn Quarter restaurant Parts & Labor. A few months before its March opening, though, Babin and his wife were in Baltimore browsing antique shops when they ran into chef Spike Gjerde of Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen. Gjerde offered to show them around some shops, and just before they were about to head back to D.C., Babin recalls his friend saying, “Oh, by the way, it looks like we picked the same name for our new restaurants.’” It turned out that Gjerde was also planning to use Parts & Labor for his new restaurant and butchery in a former tire shop. Babin knew it didn’t make sense for them both to keep the name in cities so close together, so he consulted with his team and decided to change it as a friendly gesture. The runner-up? The Partisan. “It has ‘part’ in it,” Babin pointed out when the name change took place back in January.
Giving up a name isn’t always so amiable. Standard beer garden on 14th Street NW had to become Garden District (even though it had been around two years at that point) to ease complaints from the Standard Biergarten in New York. (At least finding a replacement was easy: It occupies a space that once housed a plant store called, naturally, Garden District.) And last spring, Rogue 24 was hit with a lawsuit for trademark infringement from Oregon Brewing Company, which claimed the restaurant would be confused with its Rogue line of ales. According to the Washington Post, the case was settled after chef R.J. Cooper agreed to alter the logo—a change he has 18 months to make.
“It’s becoming a bigger issue certainly to think about trademarking things,” Babin says, particularly over the past 10 years. “It was not something I ever really thought about before.” He’s been on the opposite end of a name dispute: After he opened Birch & Barley, another restaurant with the same name opened in Washington state. His lawyer has sent a letter asking them to change the name, but no resolution has been reached yet.
Even if no legal action is taken, restaurants can be shamed out of a name. Now-defunct Dupont doughnut shop Zeke’s DC Donutz was initially going to be called Cool Disco Donut, an ode to hometown graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan. But faced with criticism that the name co-opted the artist’s fame, owner Aaron Gordon decided to change it to Zeke’s DC Donutz the day before the place was set to open. More recently, he’s raised some eyebrows for naming his 14th Street NW cocktail and dessert bar Red Light, referencing the neighborhood’s past reputation for prostitution.
A few blocks north on U Street, The Codmother owners Tolga Erbatur and Amir Sahri anointed their latest bar Handsome Cock. Their landlord hated it. “She said, ‘You cannot put that name. I don’t want my business affiliated with any porn subject,’” Erbatur said upon the bar’s March opening. Their lease required the landlord’s approval for any outside displays, so Erbatur and Sahri painted over the “cock” part of their rooster sign so it just says “handsome.” But the bar owners have kept Handsome Cock as their legal trade name, and a banner on their Facebook page depicts a rooster with a megaphone declaring “WE WILL KEEP OUR NAME.”
Ultimately, though, it only worked out for a punchline to the name’s story: “We were really cock-blocked,” Erbatur says.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery