The Name Game: A Restaurateur's Struggle


Jarrett Wrisley

"The restaurant's name doesn't matter much" is a mantra that has spun around in my head for the past few months. But the spinning usually begins after exhausting myself trying to come up with a creative, catchy, precisely crafted restaurant name.

Because the restaurant I'll open in Bangkok is partly Thai and partly not, it's tricky to come up with something fitting (this speaks more of the trials of my business model than the tribulations of the naming process). But names do have an inflated importance, in the creator's mind at least, because they change as plans change, and because a name and a concept are like clothes: they're better when they match.

Last year, three particular restaurants I visited made me want to open one of my own. The first was a remarkable little place in Taipei called The Four Senses. That one is a Chinese restaurant that borrows heavily from the West. The owner, Calvin Chen, has created a seasonal market menu that pushes ingredients to the fore (and not the rubbery sea-life kind that defines fine Chinese restaurant food). Edible flowers, baby vegetables, and free-range chickens are served, and restraint characterizes the cooking. The dining room has a bookshelf and a coat rack, as if you were eating in someone's home. This was my favorite.

Another is a bar in Bangkok's outskirts called Parking Toys. It has an imitable kitchen (for a roadside live music bar) and features a wacky array of antiques and art, and you can hear great live music there. It used to be a car garage, hence the name. It took me several visits to figure that out.

The final one was in the Hongdae District in Seoul, and it was called Reggae Chicken. Predictably, they served fried chicken and played reggae. I liked the goofy simplicity of this concept, even if the chicken didn't quite carry the load (good, but not great).

The restaurant I'll open began as an expression of the way I like to eat and is inspired by the places I've most enjoyed eating. At the Atlantic, I wrote an article last year about fried chicken, and that is one menu item that will anchor my little ship. But there are many other motivations for starting my own space, and those come into play too.

Like the fact that it's difficult to get a decent drink when you're eating Thai food in Bangkok. Wine is foolishly priced in most restaurants, and street food places usually serve just whiskey or beer. Flipping the coin, it's very hard to get decent Thai food if you're in a place that serves good drinks. So here it goes:

I wanted to open a restaurant that serves good drinks, and great fried chicken and street snacks, with comfortable décor. I would call it Wat Gai (Temple of Chicken). When I told my Thai landlord, she made a face, as if something smelled bad behind me.

First miscalculation. Thais like quirky things, but not quirky things like naming your fried chicken bar after a place of worship. Before I'd even gotten started, I was back to the drawing board.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.

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