What's in a Restaurant Name?

Weekend Edition food essayist Bonny Wolf ponders some of the odd names for restaurants around the country.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

What's in a name? Well, the restaurant name with a distinctive name can mean the difference between the owner eating pate or chopped liver. WEEKEND EDITION food essayist Bonny Wolf finds there are many ways to play the name game.

BONNY WOLF reporting:

Finger Licking Bucketeria? As you know doubt guessed: a Nigerian restaurant in Houston. It's a strange new world. In 1950's Minneapolis there were essentially four restaurants: Harry's, Freddie's, Charlie's and Murray's. They served steak. It was the same era where in more sophisticated cities restaurants were named the Grotto - Italian - and La Maisson - French. Nothing complicated, thank you.

Some early restaurant names were descriptive, if still a bit vague. An 18th century Paris soup vendor welcomed diners to his café with the sign, Boulanger sells magical restorative.

A more recent trend is toward one word, one syllable monikers. In Seattle alone you can dine at Crush, Crave, Lark, Pear and Veil.

If you can't think of a catchy name, not to worry. You can hire high-priced helped. There are whole firms called naming companies that develop branding strategies using things called multi-lingual functionality and speech stream visibility. I have no idea what any of this means, but PowerPoint presentations are no doubt involved.

There are still some perfectly straight-forward restaurant names. It's a safe bet that a place called Wasabi serves Japanese food. The Thai Restaurant is not terribly imaginative, but you know what you'll get. There's even a restaurant in New York City called Food, which is a bit ambiguous, but you probably won't leave hungry.

Some names are more challenging. Pies and Thighs turns out to be a bakery and soul food restaurant, for example. Then there are names that give no clue to the type of food served: Squat and Gobble, The Bourgeois Pig, The Monkey's Uncle.

For a time, mercifully past, punny restaurant names were in vogue: Leaven and Earth, Wok and Roll, Lawrence of Oregano, Citizen Cake. Other than Hooters, truly distasteful names are, thankfully, rare. And it's always a mistake to name a restaurant after a disaster. The many restaurants called Tsunami found this out a couple of years ago. Titanic and Typhoon seem ill-advised, as does Tony's Ptomaine Café.

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HANSEN: Bonny Wolf is contributing editor to NPR's online food column, Kitchen Window. Her book, Talking with My Mouth Full, will be published this fall.

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