Because I haven’t spent much time in Charlotte, I felt lucky to hit town with an insider’s dining recommendation. The restaurant wasn’t exactly in the city, she’d warned me. Its location stretched the definition of outskirts.
And its external appearance wouldn’t collect any charm points: I ought to be on the lookout for a squat strip mall with a sloping roof. But she’d promised the food being served within would precisely reflect what’s being farmed in the Carolina foothills these days.
Check, check and check. I confidently settled into a corner table at Heirloom Restaurant.
A few courses into the meal, my confidence began to waver. So many details weren’t matching up with what I’d been told. Was I even in the right restaurant?
Nope. I was supposed to go to Heritage, a name I failed to deposit in my memory bank, which already holds the title of Sean Brock’s cookbook (“Heritage”); my favorite German-leaning restaurant in Richmond, Va. (Heritage) and that promising Veggie Bin auxiliary out on Seabrook Island, which didn’t last a year (Heritage.)
Heirloom registered with me as slightly more unique, but my take would probably be disputed by fans of Heirloom Cafe in San Francisco; Heirloom Restaurant in Lafayette, Ind.; Heirloom Restaurant in New Haven, Conn.; and Heirloom Restaurant in Beaver, Pa.
“On Valentine’s Day, sometimes we do have issues with people who book on OpenTable and think we’re the Heirloom in Delaware,” Clark Barlowe, owner of Charlotte’s Heirloom, says. “You think people would know which state they were eating in.”
As an increasing number of restaurants seek to convey their culinary philosophies in a crowded marketplace, name overlap is inevitable. Choosing a name that’s memorable, meaningful and search engine-friendly is more challenging now than ever, branding consultant Rose Linke says. But it’s also worthwhile in an industry that’s renowned for its high failure rate.
“Restaurants have so many capital needs at the beginning that branding is not a priority,” says Linke, director of client services for A Hundred Monkeys, a Berkeley, Calif.-based naming firm. “But having a great name really does help so much.”
What is a great name for a restaurant? Unlike beer, wine and spirits, restaurant names typically aren’t trademarked, so the only limitation on choosing the right combination of letters (and symbols, such as the now-ubiquitous ampersand) is the business owner’s creativity.
Still, when asked to cite a fantastically impressive restaurant name, Linke hesitates. Restaurants are complex entities, so a name that works well in one setting could easily flop in another. Depending on a restaurant’s concept and clientele, Mario’s Pizza might very well be the best name it could possibly claim.
“OK, I have one,” Linke says finally. “Boot & Shoe Service. It’s a high-end California-Italian restaurant; a very neighborhoody-type place.”
Linke likes Boot & Shoe Service because it explicitly references the history of the building it occupies. “With so much change happening all around, where things are changing really rapidly, it’s nice for a name to give some respect,” she says.
Additionally, it’s intriguing: She’s not fond of names that tell potential guests everything they need to know about a restaurant.
“It’s like telling someone your entire life story on a first date,” she says. “We’re all for names that are a bit unusual, because it’s going to make people curious.”
The other problem with highly specific names is they don’t leave much pivot space. For example, when New Moon Pizza on Johns Island decided to start serving sushi, it had to choose between shedding its name and confusing its customers: The restaurant is now known as The Loophole.
Sticking with an unambiguous name when it’s no longer applicable can foster the sense of mystery that Linke encourages. That doesn’t always work: When 5Church brought its address-based name here from Charlotte, some Charleston diners were surprised to discover the restaurant wasn’t on Church Street. But it hasn’t held back 167 Raw, which inherited its name from owner Jesse Sandole’s father’s seafood market at 167 Hummock Pond Road in Nantucket, Mass.
“It’s a constant topic of discussion: ‘What’s the 167?’ ” Sandole says.
Guests’ questions may be the most important driver in the restaurant name game, since a name that’s invisible to Google is perhaps the worst name of all. Restaurants such as Fish and The Park Cafe have a tougher time cracking online searches conducted by diners in faraway cities plotting Charleston trips.
“That’s where people are running into more problems,” Linke says. “If we time travel back before the internet, if you were looking for a restaurant in your town, it didn’t matter if there was a restaurant in another town that had the same name.”
Now all restaurant names are mixed into the same online stew, which becomes especially frustrating when it’s time to register a domain name. “That’s why you see more and more of two words connected with an ‘and’,” Linke says.
The latest local entry in that category is Scarecrow & Co., a triumvirate of Ann Street restaurants: Scarecrow, Feathertop and Wise-Buck Smoked Meats. (The Scarecrow & Co. team declined to be interviewed for this story.)
When Eater in 2015 counted up the name types represented by all of the restaurants on the James Beard Foundation’s list of award semifinalists, it found 17 restaurants followed the blank-and-blank format.
At the time, the single most popular naming convention was what Eater termed “The (Whatever),” followed closely by chefs’ names and single-word abstract concepts (the class to which Heirloom and Heritage belong). While only 13 restaurants bore random male names, two of them were located in Charleston: Edmund’s Oast and Leon’s Oyster Shop.
For whatever reason, men’s names are particularly popular here: Just this year, Harold’s Cabin, Little Jack’s Tavern and Luke’s Craft Pizza have joined the dining scene. And the newest location of Home Team BBQ is officially called Fiery Ron’s, although nobody ever uses that part of the name.
Restaurant names have a tendency to evolve: The Darling Oyster Bar quickly became just The Darling, and “at the restaurant, we just say ‘The D,’” executive chef Joe DiMaio says.
The Darling is the successor to Union Provisions, which may have sported the worst name in recent Charleston restaurant history. “That name took more heat than any name,” says DiMaio, who wasn’t associated with the project. “The word ‘union’ just didn’t work here. I heard it from people online; I saw it on Facebook.”
Still, he adds, “I don’t think that’s the reason the restaurant wasn’t successful.”
Ultimately, chefs and branding experts say, a bad restaurant isn’t helped by a bad name: “I remember one in Providence named Tini,” Barlowe says. “It was terrible. You couldn’t say to someone with a straight face, ‘Do you want to go to Tini?’ They’re closed now.” But they all agree a good restaurant can transcend a mediocre name.
“I don’t know if we all think McCrady’s is a great name, but it’s obviously one of the best restaurants in the Southeast,” DiMaio says. “You think about (Asheville’s) Curate: Most people can’t even pronounce it, but the food speaks for itself.”