By Any Other Name
Do the names of New Orleans restaurants affect their fate?
What’s in a name? There was a time when the owner’s name, followed by an apostrophe and an “s” was nearly universal. But restaurateurs should choose carefully, since the name could help determine their fate.
Over the past decade-plus, there has been a strong trend toward using a singular, non-possessive noun.
In some cases, the noun is a proper one and restaurants are named for places: Thus we have Balize, named for an old French settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi River; Borgne, named for the seafood-rich lake of John Besh’s youth; and Bayona, the former name of Dauphine Street. Bayona also falls into the restaurant-named-after-street category, along with Upperline and Annunciation.
Most restaurants employing the noun-as-name approach, however, just use a common noun: Cava, Root, Vessel. In some cases, I’m not sure whether they’re nouns or verbs (or commands): Butcher, Slice, Squeal.
Some use a common noun, but in another language. This trend has given us Ancora, Cava and Mondo in Italian. In French it has given us Cochon and Coquette, Patois and Pêche (complete with the accent circonflexe). And in Spanish: Cava, La Boca and two locations of El Gato Negro (Dos Gatos Negros?).
Another trend is to put “restaurant” in front of the name, in a Frenchy inversion. This approach has given us Restaurant des Familles, Restaurant August and Restaurant Rebirth. It has also given us Restaurant R’evolution, which adds an apostrophe to invoke two different words, managing to simultaneously conjure both the Marquis de Lafayette and Charles Darwin.
Of course, all of this is in contrast to the classic approach, whereby you simply gave the owner’s first or last name, followed by “‘s.” Therefore, if you didn’t like the food, you knew where to direct your complaints: to Antoine, Arnaud or Galatoire. It meant the restaurateur was putting his very name on the line.
You have to like the accountability that inspired. Guillaume Tujague had to be careful about the quality of his beef brisket, or he might lose customers and get dirty looks on the street.
On the other hand, it no doubt has helped tremendously through the years that these restaurants had such poetic-sounding (French) names. Would Antoine’s or Galatoire’s have fared as well called Phil’s Place or Seymour’s Creole Restaurant?
Some places need a salty name to convey the gravity of the undertaking. Charlie’s Steak House is a name that tells you they’re not going to shortchange you on the ounces. Crescent City Steak House goes similarly to the heart of the matter.
Sometimes you get just the last name. A triumvirate of Uptown fine dining restaurants—Brigtsen’s, Clancy’s and Gautreau’s—go this route.
Others signify multiple proprietors. When Pascal bought Manale Restaurant, he artfully changed it to Pascal’s Manale. Ditto Ruth with Chris.
Still others leave absolutely no ambiguity as to who is responsible. For instance, Bobby Hebert’s Cajun Cannon could not possibly be more explicit as to proprietorship.
Some restaurants do an excellent job of conveying what to expect when you walk in the door. Would anyone argue that Irish House fails to live up to its billing? The Steak Knife is equally candid.
In some cases, the name focuses on location. Ralph’s on the Park is as accurate as can be, at the historic gate of City Park. Liuzza’s by the Track distinguishes it from “regular” Liuzza’s, but it also tells you where to go. Bourbon House and Maple Street Café are both pretty much where you’d expect them to be.
Among the most memorable names, however, are those that don’t quite fit into any of the above categories. Mother’s, Five Happiness, Acme Oyster House, Ye Olde College Inn, Two Tony’s, Jacques-Imo’s and, ahem, Mo Pho come to mind.
To what extent does a name determine a restaurant’s fate? It’s hard to say exactly. Food, service and location must play a bigger role.
But can anyone doubt that the name “Commander’s Palace” was a stroke of 19th-century marketing genius?