Like snakeskin skirts and reusable straws, grandmothers dominated 2019. Italian grandmas, Jewish grandmas. German grandmas. Russian grandmas. Real-life inspirations all, behind many of the biggest restaurant openings this year.
There’s Rosalie in Houston. Emilie’s in Washington, D.C. Dear Inga in San Francisco.
In Denver, Vince Howard had hoped to name his new deli after his grandmother Hazel. “But there were already too many Hazels!” he says. So, he went with a different woman’s name: Tessa.
He doesn’t actually know anyone named Tessa. He just likes the way it sounds, what it conveys. “I always thought of it as a nice, comforting name,” he says. “It seems to suggest a loving, female touch.” In Greek, Tessa translates to “born fourth,” and as the father of three daughters — the deli his figurative fourth — that made sense. Also, he adds, it’s a kind of ham.
Mothers and daughters got their fair share of signage this year, too, like Leila in Detroit; LilyP in Boston; and Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, an ode to chef Jeremy Fox’s daughter, Birdie, and his grandmother Gladys. This is all nothing new, of course. Naming food establishments after women — often a chef’s first and formative culinary influence — is a convention about as old as eateries themselves. And a genuine, heartfelt tradition at that.
But it does make you wonder: Why wouldn’t Howard be moved to dub his deli, say, “Damien” instead? Why does this restaurant title tradition persist? What’s in a woman’s name today, anyway?
Apparently, the same thing that was in it yesterday.
“Warmth, caring, hospitality,” says San Francisco chef David Golovin, who opened Dear Inga in October. He and his partners, Ravi Kapur and Jeff Hanak, wanted their restaurant to feel like “somebody’s home, like Grandma’s cooking,” he explains. Like his grandma Inge’s cooking.
They switched the “e” to an “a” because they feared everyone would mispronounce it, like “hinge” or “ing.” They also added a little something extra.
“It was never going to be just Inga,” he says. Prefacing it with a long-lost salutation helped evoke the Old World feeling they were going for. Or at least a time before text and email, when handwritten letters reigned.
The trio floated a few other options, including Borzoi Trading Company (“Ridiculous!” says Golovin) and Linda, a nearby street. “But there was no Linda in my life,” he says.
The name “Dear Inga” has attracted as much press attention as its delicious langos and Liptauer cheese dip. “We liked the feminine note to it,” explains Golovin. “It’s a pretty masculine management team here; we wanted some female power.”
Wanting to telegraph an explicitly female energy makes sense in this #MeToo moment. “A female name shows that a restaurant doesn’t have the Mario Batali attitude,” says Paul Freedman, Yale historian and author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America. “Or even David Chang’s fuck-you attitude,” he adds. “A restaurant with a woman’s name conveys a kind of comfort and gaiety, a supportive, collaborative environment. Whereas a man’s name conveys… proprietorship.”
Does that sound a little sexist itself? Perhaps. (Rich Table alum Brandon Rice named his upcoming San Francisco restaurant Ernest, which I’d argue conveys something sweeter than simply ownership.)
It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the latest lady-named restaurants have been named by men.
That’s not to say women chefs never name their restaurants after their female influences. (Melissa Perello’s first San Francisco restaurant, Frances, for instance, was in homage to one grandmother, and her new LA restaurant — M. Georgina — the other. In Portland, Oregon, Maya Lovelace’s Mae is an ode to her grandmother, too.)
But my very unscientific study reveals that if a woman names her restaurant after a woman, she more likely names it after herself. Like Mamma Leone’s. Ruby Foo. And stalwarts like Stephanie’s, in Boston; Manhattan’s many Sarabeth’s; Harlem’s Sylvia’s.
And the more contemporary case in point: Dominique Crenn, of America’s first woman-run three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Atelier Crenn. And Petit Crenn. And Bar Crenn. But these days, Crenn is very much an exception for invoking her last name only.
No one is criticizing men, or anyone, for honoring the people who raised them, cared for them, and cooked for them. Even if we wonder, as ever: Why did those responsibilities always fall on the women? (Answer: patriarchy.)
Still, it’s the enduring practice of assigning random women’s names to men’s restaurant ventures that confounds. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone, whose two Los Angeles restaurants are named after his grandmothers, recently debuted a new restaurant, in Dallas, called Georgie. (Well, officially Georgie by Curtis Stone.) “And who, you might ask, is Georgie?” posed the Dallas Morning News. Stone selected it from a list of “G” names presented by his partner. It turned out Georgie is the nickname of Stone’s niece.
In Portland, Oregon, co-owner Sean O’Connor and executive chef Alex Jackson named their new Nordic-Northwestern restaurant Vivian. After the Vivian Apartments, which formerly occupied what’s now Iceland’s first stateside Kex Hotel. Had the apartment building been named, say, Victor, would they have kept it, though? No, admits O’Connor.
“We wanted to give the restaurant a feminine character,” he explains, echoing the other owners I spoke with. Jackson and O’Connor toyed with “Systir” and “Dottir,” sister and daughter in Icelandic, respectively. (They decided Dottir made a better name for the rooftop bar.)
In their minds, and on their mood boards, they envisioned Vivian as an unconventionally feminine woman. A “rough-around-the edges, yet refined” woman. And a specific woman: an ex-neighbor of their designer, in LA — a former Eastern European duchess, whose name no one remembers. But she’d hold court at the communal pool, playing the harp and pouring schnapps and sharing stories of her worldly adventures. “Vivian” exuded warmth and hospitality, as does, they hope, their restaurant.
And Big Dave’s Barbecue Joint doesn’t?
It goes back to the “mama’s boy” thing, says Joseph Szala of Atlanta-based Vigor Branding, to people’s relationships with their parents, to traditional family dynamics: the fathers and grandfathers as the stoic disciplinarians who go off to work, and the mothers and grandmothers as the loving caretakers and family cooks.
“People today are looking for restaurants that are genuine and inviting, as an answer to the divisiveness in our culture,” says Szala. “A restaurant with a woman’s name sounds like an open-arms type of place.”
That may be true. But as gender and gender roles continue to mix and morph, as our long-held associations with parents and grandparents continue to change, so too might something as seemingly simple as restaurant names. After all, it’s not a person’s gender per se that’s driving these feelings, says Szala. “It’s the connection, the love and respect a chef has for that person.”
Sometimes a term of endearment alone is enough — as in Portland, Oregon, restaurateur Micah Camden’s latest spot: Bae’s Fried Chicken. His business partner, the football player Ndamukong Suh, came up with the name, and Camden liked it straight away. “It was easy and memorable, and I liked that a 330-pound NFL defensive lineman suggested such a cutesy name,” he says. And a gender-neutral name. “I liked that it’s not overly masculine or overly feminine — it’s just, you know, my bae.”
Ultimately, says Szala, there’s a yearning right now for more interesting restaurant names. “Band names for restaurants — why not?” he says laughing. “Angry Grandma. That’d be a good one.”
His colleague, Aaron Allen, founder of Aaron Allen & Associates global restaurant consulting, is generally against naming restaurants after women — whether the owner knows them or not. “If you’re pushing really hard for a female-driven name, there better be a good story behind it. Even if Barbara had the best spaghetti recipe! In Santa Barbara! I’d advise against it.” A first name means nothing to anyone else, he says. What are you about? What’s the cuisine? What’s the takeaway?
“There are a million restaurants in this country,” says Allen. “If you can’t figure out something better than your grandmother’s name, maybe you’re in the wrong business.”
Rachel Levin is a freelance journalist, Eater’s ex-San Francisco critic, and the author of LOOK BIG (Ten Speed, 2018) and EAT SOMETHING, with Wise Sons Deli, to be published in March by Chronicle Books.
Nick Iluzada is a designer and snack enthusiast in Los Angeles.