User's Guide

A Brief History of Restaurant Rip-off Lawsuits

Ed's Lobster Bar and Pearl's Oyster Bar
Ed’s Lobster Bar and Pearl’s Oyster Bar Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev; Robert K. Chin

The Mr. Chow–Philippe fiasco isn’t the first time a restaurant has been sued for copyright infringement. In fact, it’s not even the first time Philippe owner Stratis Morfogen has landed in hot water. We’ve unearthed a case history that indicates he was sued back in 1997 when the owners of Rockefeller Center’s Sea Grill prevented him from using the same name for his restaurant at 1562 Second Avenue. But Morfogen is hardly the only restaurateur to get inspired by a competitor, as the following history shows. What’s the general trend here? Most places that get sued end up settling when they realize how hard it is to balance a lawsuit with running a restaurant. However, most of these conflicts were over trade names. The only one that involved a restaurant’s entire identity (from the menu to the décor to the place settings) — Pearl Oyster Bar v. Ed’s Lobster Bar — was never settled, so if Mr. Chow prevails over Philippe, he may just set a precedent.

1989: Papaya King v. Papaya King, Papaya Prince, and Original Papaya
The cousin of Papaya King founder Gus Poulos once told us “We’ve sued many a Papaya Kingdom, Papaya Prince.” Papaya Kingdom cleverly dropped the K to become Papaya Ingdom, but it was ultimately forced to change its name entirely. The New York chain also successfully sued an Original Papaya for having a similar logo. So why have other Papaya King imitators gotten away with it? As the Times points out, “papaya, like cola, cannot be trademarked: as the name of a fruit, it is a common word.”

1990: Kentucky Fried Chicken v. Kennedy Fried Chicken
Kennedy Fried Chickens are abundant in New York (there were an estimated 50 locations in 2004), and don’t think the Colonel hasn’t noticed: The Times reported that Kennedy Fried Chicken was sued in 1990, and legal documents indicate that certain Kennedy locations (along with a Tokhie Fried Chicken!) were seized and finally forced to dole out $296,000 in 2004. The Times points out that the Kennedys have been hard to pin down legally, since their ownership is sketchy and they’re not a chain in the McDonald’s sense.

1990-Present: Patsy’s Italian Restaurant v. Patsy’s Pizzeria
In 1990, the Patsy’s Pizzeria chain (established in Harlem in 1933) prevented Patsy Grimaldi (a nephew of Patsy’s owner, Patsy Lucieri) from operating as Patsy’s in Brooklyn (it changed its name to Grimaldi’s). Ten years later, Patsy’s Pizzeria got a taste of its own when it was sued by Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, a favorite pasta joint of Sinatra. The pasta joint complained that the pizzeria had started selling red-sauce jars under the name Pasty’s Restaurant (not Pizzeria), with a logo similar to the pasta joint’s long-selling jars. A judge barred sale of the sauce. In 2006, the pasta joint sued again, this time trying to prevent the opening of a Patsy’s in Staten Island that claimed it had bought the name rights from the pizzeria. A judge ruled that it could open as Patsy’s, but had to cover up an Italian motto. Just last week, the Patsy’s were back in court because the phrase had reappeared on the Long Island joint’s awning.

1991: Famous Original Ray’s v. All the Other Ray’s
Here’s the history of Ray’s pizzerias, per the Times: Ralph Cuomo, owner of the first Ray’s, opened a second one and sold it to Rosolino Mangano. Mangano opened up a dozen other locations under the name Famous Original Ray’s and sold one to Gary Esposito, who opened up five more under the name Original Ray’s. After some disputes, the three men teamed up to form a company so they could register a federal trademark and sue every other Ray’s — most notably one Joseph Bari who owned the Ray Bari Pizza chain and claimed to have trademarked the name Ray’s in New York. Bari told the Times he wouldn’t fight for the name Ray’s, and he still operates under the name Ray Bari Pizza. Meanwhile, the Famous Original Ray’s Licensing Corp has sued other Ray’s as recently as 2008 (that case ended in a settlement).

1997: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus v. Windows on the World
The Greatest Show on Earth unsuccessfully sued the bar in the World Trade Center for using the motto “the Greatest Bar on Earth.”

2003: Bukhara Grill of New Delhi v. Bukhara Grill of New York
New Delhi’s famous Bukhara claimed it had trademarked the name for restaurant use back when it operated an outpost in New York in 1986. A judge ruled that because that restaurant had been out of operation for three years (the legal definition of abandonment), Bukhara no longer had any claim to the name in the United States, and the Midtown East restaurant could keep its name.

2004: Rare Bar & Grill v. Rare Steakhouse
Shortly before it opened, Jean-Georges Vongerichten changed the name of his Time Warner Center steakhouse from Rare to V after burger joint Rare Bar & Grill complained that they didn’t want their brand diluted.

2005: West Hollywood’s Koi v. the East Village’s Koi
On the verge of opening a $2 million New York branch, West Hollywood’s Koi sued an East Village restaurant that had been operating under the name Koi since 2003. The complaint dropped Jennifer Lopez’s name to prove Koi was a “hot spot,” and claimed the “imposter” had copied design and menu elements. The East Village’s Koi in turn asked the court to prevent L.A.’s Koi from opening in New York. Eventually, to avoid extensive litigation, the local Koi caved. It’s now known as Kanoyama.

2007: Daniel Boulud v. Danny Brown, CBGB v. DBGB
Daniel Boulud threatened legal action on a Queens restaurateur, Danny Brown, for using a logo similar to that of his db bistro modern (a lowercase “d” and “b”). Ironically, a couple of months later, a CBGB lawyer told Boulud to cease and desist from using a DBGB logo similar to the CBGB logo. Boulud did just that, and Danny Brown ended up taking down his offending db sign.

2007: Pearl Oyster Bar v. Ed’s Lobster Bar
In a juicy lawsuit, Rebecca Charles of Peal Oyster Bar claimed that her sous-chef of six years, Ed McFarland, “pirated Pearl’s entire menu, copied all aspects of Pearl’s presentation of its dishes; duplicated Pearl’s readily identifiable décor; made repeated efforts to secure Pearl’s staff and suppliers and even returned to Pearl and photographed business documents; all for the evident purpose of trading off of Pearl’s sterling reputation and business.” Answering the complaint, McFarland argued that Pearl’s dishes were “traditional, ubiquitous and generic seafood dishes,” and asked that the case be dismissed. In April of 2008, the parties settled — Charles told the Times it was partly because she had to take care of her ailing mother.

2008: Miami Beach’s the Forge v. New York’s Forge
Miami Beach’s lavish celebrity spot the Forge accused Mark Forgione’s modest restaurant, Forge, of “cybersquatting” and trademark infringement (Forge was actually Forgione’s longtime nickname). The suit ended in a settlement and Forge is now simply Marc Forgione.

2009: Trader Joe’s v. Trader John’s
Late last year, a mysterious sign popped up on West 14th Street in New York, advertising a Trader John’s. It turned out to belong to Gristedes honcho John A. Catsimatidis’s new supermarket. Trader Joe’s didn’t take kindly to it, and Castimatidis eventually changed the name.

2009: Hershey’s Kiss v. Jacques Torres’s Champagne Kiss
When the Hershey Company sent a letter telling Jacques Torres to find a new name for his Champagne bonbon, Torres replied with a missive calling the action “yet another example of a giant, monolithic corporation attempting to take advantage of ‘the little guy,’” and had supporters sign a petition telling Hershey’s to kiss off. The strategy may have worked, because the petition is now over 4,000 signatures strong, Torres got oodles of publicity, and he hasn’t heard a peep from Hershey since.

2009: Chicago’s Superdawg v. MacDougal Street’s Superdog
The home of Maurie and Flaurie decided to run a West Village hot-dog stand through the garden when it tried to open as Superdog. After a couple of cease-and-desist letters, the owner changed its name to Super Hot Dog, but that didn’t stop a lawsuit from being filed.

A Brief History of Restaurant Rip-off Lawsuits