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.

So I called a Thai food writer I respect, and we ate lunch. At this point I was writing quite a bit about the nascent organic movement here, and soon my fried chicken bar had evolved into something more: a produce-driven street food restaurant (with good fried chicken, mind you). I was going to bring the sidewalk inside, and spruce it up a bit.

After kicking around names for a few hours we settled on Duum Khao (Drink, Rice). It's sort of a play on a Thai phrase about eating and drinking. I wanted people to know that's what they were supposed to do, and it sounded funny. Plus, as my friend mentioned, "The beer here is mostly rice anyways." But when I told Western friends, their brows furrowed. And so I remained in a nervous, searching state.

I invited people to dinner and we would eat and discuss what to call this place I was planning. I made lists and emailed them to friends. There was always a snag, a cultural misstep or lame alliteration. The interior is inspired by Japanese izakaya—Japan's great gastro-pubs. So I lobbed up "Iza-Thai-ya" one night during dinner, and all the air seemed to escape from the room. "Just kidding," I said, smiling. I wasn't kidding.

I started to believe I'd never come up with one, until one afternoon when I got all existential about the recipes I was working on: fried chicken with crispy shallots and sweet and salty plum sauce, a red curry with okra and eggplant, a spicy slaw of green mango and herbs, and hot and sour grilled pork jowl.

"This is Thai soul food," I thought.

And then I thought about the city from which this food has sprung—Krungthep Mahanakorn (Bangkok's real name). Krungthep Mahanakorn's streets are nothing if not soulful. These streets are full of motorbike taxi drivers snoozing under gnarled tree trunks. They echo with temple fairs and roaring tuk-tuks in the old town. Thai country music blares from taxis and rickety karaoke joints, and impromptu picnics with grilled meats and cold beer break out on the sidewalks. Seriously, they do.

And so it came to me: Soul Food Mahanakorn.

That's it. The street food of Asia's most soulful city. Fried chicken, ribs, papaya salad, crispy fish, fried noodles, curries, dips, and little desserts ... heck, I can even serve waffles, because you can find those here too. I could see it blinking on the side of my old building, in a retro typeface, ushering people in with its promise of comfort and substance.

I was so excited I fired off an email to a friend and newspaper editor. "It's too declarative, and there are too many syllables," he wrote back gruffly.

And I know he's probably right.

But this time I'm sticking with it. It's the food, the drinks, and the personality of a place that drag you back. That's what I keep telling myself. No one goes to restaurants more than once for a name, and I'm not in love with the names of two of the three above.

Reggae Chicken gets me every time, though.