When Restaurants Specialize in Bad Taste

Nothing but a good time on the Bowery.
Nothing but a good time on the Bowery. Photo: New York Times/Wikimedia

With the slew of restaurants that open each year in New York City, some new names are bound to be clunkers. But while awkward, nonsensical designations are not uncommon — we’ve endured an upscale place named for a country cow and another called Frog that didn’t intend to reference amphibians in the last few years — two new spots have names that bring to mind specific instances of suffering in Manhattan. That’s not exactly the kind of callback to the city’s rich history that most restaurateurs are looking to co-opt.

Tonight marks the debut of SRO on the Bowery, Giulio Adriani’s so-called “pizza speakeasy” in the back of tapas restaurant Espoletta. It’s a notoriously tricky job selling new concepts to a dining public inured with pedigreed chefs and a bounty of established, excellent restaurant choices, which maybe explains how SRO got saddled with the train wreck of a description that was emailed out with press materials: “A whimsical evening awaits as you travel back in time to a Bowery of yore, when Single Room Occupancy hotels lined the street and New York City’s hidden gems were discovered word-of-mouth.” But is anyone really yearning for the “Bowery of yore” when the living conditions were cramped and miserable? What about when stabbings and baseball-bat-borne violence went unchecked, scabies scabied on, and tenants often couldn’t afford basic meals?

A different sort of train wreck haunts the assumed identity of Death Ave, a new Chelsea restaurant, brewery, and coffee shop that’s named, according to the PR materials, after the “hundreds of lives claimed by ‘The Butcher’ — a high-speed freight train that ran an irregular patch down Tenth and Eleventh Avenues between 1846 to 1941.” The menu is “Hellenic-inspired comfort food,” of course, and includes “deconstructed” horiatiki salad and fries with truffle oil and cheese. Press materials also tout “one of the city’s largest and most charming al fresco dining venues,” and there are no fewer than 13 coffee drinks on the sprawling brunch menu.

Death Ave’s melted saganaki and Hilopites pasta might very well be delicious, but christening a “trendy supper club” with the “edgy name” of a place where a 7-year-old was once “ground to death” and 500 schoolchildren subsequently marched in protest in 1908 just seems less than cheery, also tasteless. Similarly at SRO, Adriani is a deftly talented pizza chef, and whatever pies he turns out are hopefully going to be great. But something feels amiss about a moniker that calls to mind the city’s single-room occupancies, which on the Bowery were phased out by the collection of upmarket restaurants and bars that now crowd its frontage with brash, fake grit. There’s little doubt that the names were chosen simply because they sounded cool — two different sets of proprietors already fought over who would get to call their place SRO in 2010, after all — and the tenuous historical connections are nothing more than an attempt to add timelessness to new spots. But to anyone even vaguely familiar with the actual context, these names just sound tone-deaf. At this rate, the Typhoid Tavern can’t be too far behind.

When Restaurants Specialize in Bad Taste