What's in a restaurant name?
Somewhere in Austin, a restaurateur is having drinks with his chefs, investors, and a couple of college best friends, trying to come up with a great name for his Italian toast concept. It's no easy task. The name has to be exotic, but not alienating. It has to convey whether the restaurant is upscale or fast casual or a bar at the edge of TABC requirements. It has to be something that looks good on a marquee, at least in abbreviated form. The only thing it doesn't have to be is original.
As it has traditionally done with fashion designers who simultaneously, inexplicably come up with collections inspired by nuclear armistice, say, or maybe Nanook of the North, groupthink has infected Austin's restaurant scene. It started out innocently enough with the class of single-word names – Vespaio, Zoot, wink, Aquarelle, Uchi – that announced Austin was entering a new culinary era. That was followed by the "ands" – Foreign & Domestic, Salt & Time, Fabi + Rosi – breaking up the formula, but still adaptable to the character of the business and customizable with variations in punctuation.
Those were the golden days. Maybe it's that there are too many names floating about or maybe there's less passion in the scene, but Austin's restaurants seem now to be named by a random generator. In 2014, it was the "forks," with Fork & Taco and Fork & Vine joining Flour & Vine in a Google search goulash. In 2015, there was a mini-trend in embracing pyromania (Burn, Blaze), but now the "yards" have taken over with Yard Bar, Yard House (to be fair, that one is not a locally owned concept), and Parlor & Yard.
There are some charming trends, sure, like homages to family members (Gardner, Olamaie, Irene's), ill-fated Shakespearean heroines (Ophelia, Juliet), and old ladies both human and fowl (Sophia's, Geraldine's). And every so often something comes completely from left field (Royal Jelly), but for the most part the new additions to our restaurant guide are infuriatingly bland.
Does this say something about Austin? Is our current restaurant scene more of a marketing study than a passion project? Certainly, there are some places with questionable names (looking at you, Counter 3. Five. VII) that make some of the most innovative food in town. And places like Franklin Barbecue, Hopdoddy, or Via 313 don't need the frisson of a few syllables to pack customers in. Of course the name doesn't matter as much as the food.
But too often an uninspired name is a harbinger of an uninspired menu. Want a crab toast that randomly incorporates sambal just because? Go to Copper & Brine. Hankering for an artisanal, wood-fired pizza made with artichokes and truffle oil? Go to Scorch. And don't forget to spend a night trying out the 50 beers on tap at Fork Yard. Their arancini sets a new standard. Yes, all three restaurants are made up. We nonetheless look forward to attending their summer 2017 openings.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com