Food and drink are no longer enough. Increasingly, restaurants also provide customers with a puzzle—why do they have such baffling names? Recent London openings include Karpo, which sounds like an intriguing cross between Kafka and Harpo Marx, but is actually the “Greek goddess of fruits of the earth”; 10 Cases, which might suggest a link with Sherlock Holmes but in fact refers to an idiosyncratic wine-buying policy; and the bar/bistro Soif, the French for thirst, but which some customers have taken to be a philosophical question—“So if...?”
At one time restaurants were almost always named after their founding proprietor—venerable survivors include Rules in London (1798), Keen’s in New York (1885) and Café Procope in Paris (1686)—but today the whole lexicon has been plundered. In those cities you can now dine in establishments named after an ancient dish of jellified pork (Brawn, in east London, serves food that is “honest and simple with a respect for tradition”), the ship on which Darwin developed his ideas about evolution (Beagle, which stresses it “is not named after the dog”, and aims for “creative American cooking”) and a man best known for beating naughty children (Au Père Fouettard, near Les Halles, where the manageress apparently “runs a tight ship”).
“Every new opening I deal with wants to have a catchy name,” says Maureen Mills of the restaurant-PR specialists Network London. “There are three rules: make sure it’s not rude, people can spell it, and it’s not in an obscure language.” After that anything goes, though customers might have to overcome an initial aversion at Skin & Bones in Portland, Oregon, or Virus in Ghent, where the food can be as bizarre as the name: I once ate muskrat there.
The word “restaurant” was originally a term for restorative broth. In the years before the French revolution, its meaning extended to the premises where soup and other foods were sold. One of the first Parisian restaurants was called Boeuf à la Mode, while today the hottest joint in town is Chateaubriand. (“Such a terrific name,” says Mills. “I don’t know why it wasn’t used before.”) Some names get used more than once—purely by coincidence, both Kent and Paris have restaurants named after the Roman food-writer Apicius, while in either New York or Perth you can dine at a Balthazar—named after a massive champagne bottle, or perhaps one of the three Wise Men. (The other two magi had equally ringing monikers. There’s already a Le Melchior in Cahors, south-west France, but Caspar is still up for grabs.) There was a third Balthazar, in London, though that changed owing to “trade-name infringement”. Its new name, Manson, has unfortunate connotations for anyone who was reading a newspaper in 1968.