Word Play

Nonsense Names: The Rise of Restaurant Gibberish

Sure, the names might mean <i>something</i>.
Sure, the names might mean something.

“I probably have 15 or 20 names trademarked, just in case I find a space,” says Andrew Carmellini, a chef who understands the importance of a good name. (He first trademarked Bar Primi, the name of his latest restaurant, back in 2007.) “Naming might be the hardest part of the restaurant incubation process,” the chef continues. “Usually, I come to the table with 100 names, and whittle the list down. Like restaurants, there’s no road map for the perfect name.” There might not be a road map, but lately it seems more and more owners are in fact turning to one specific plan: short, indistinct words that hold no innate meaning for most English speakers — nonsense names.

New York has a proud history of gibberish restaurants, places like Moomba or Babbo or Dorsia (made famous again thanks to Patrick Batemen’s obsession with getting a reservation). But the trend feels like it’s accelerated in the last few years as more and more places adopt a similar type of name. One word, two or three syllables, lots of vowels, often ending with an a: Estela, Piora, All’onda, Contrada, Barchetta. (Can we be that far away from someone naming a restaurant Bla’blabla?) Sure the names might mean something in Italian, or Danish, or another foreign tongue, but mostly they just sound nice. There’s a sort of timeless appeal, since they don’t refer to any specific era or place, and they’re simple enough to stick in diners’ minds.

“I like something short and sweet,” says Bobby Flay, who chose Gato for his latest restaurant, adding that he liked the name because it actually translates to cat in Spanish. “There are a lot of made-up words that people are using, and it’s hard to understand what they mean,” he continues. “I have no idea what Noma means, except that it’s the best restaurant in the world.”

Talk to enough chefs about restaurant names, and Noma actually comes up a lot. The Copenhagen restaurant’s success seems to be one reason why this naming trend has taken hold. Just look at Blanca, Aldea, Aska, Contra, or even Alma in Los Angeles, all spots with names you might call Noma-ish.

Yet while Flay sees these kinds of names as inherently meaningless, for the people doing the naming, that’s part of the draw: The names can be interpreted in many different ways. They can sound vaguely Italian, or Nordic, or Spanish, whatever. A name that isn’t tied to anything too specific means a restaurant can create an identity that isn’t grounded in anything too literal. (Go with a name like Empire Biscuit or Shalom Japan, and your concept becomes somewhat inflexible.)

Fabian Von Hauske says the name Contra only found real meaning as the actual restaurant evolved: “At first it had no significance, really, but then, when we actually got a space, the name started taking shape: two ideas clashing against each other in order to form something else.”

Estela partners Thomas Carter and Ignacio Mattos chose their restaurant’s name exactly because it could apply to Mattos’s South American heritage, or Carter’s family roots in Kiev. “It sounded like it could be from either of our backgrounds,” Carter says. The name won out over “Tourbillon,” a mechanism for watches that got ditched for reasons that are now obvious (“I can’t even pronounce it,” Carter says). As a bonus, there was historical significance for Estela: It was the name of the café that was in the space before it became the Knitting Factory.

“It’s impossible to name a restaurant correctly,” says John Fraser, whose latest restaurant is Narcissa (named for one of owner André Balazs’s cows). “It’s like naming a child, who knows?” he adds. “But the confusion about what it means actually helps people remember it.”

Nonsense Names: The Rise of Restaurant Gibberish