one-word-resto-names
Illustration / Billy Penn

Why so many Philly restaurants have one-word names

Assembly, Martha, Jaxon, Suga, Cinder, Aldine, Dizengoff, Parc, Vedge, Osteria, Southwark, Amada, Coeur, Biga, Zahav, Root…

Brevity, where restaurant and bar names are concerned, seems to be as popular as locally-sourced kale salad. Which is to say, very.

Assembly, Martha, Jaxon, Suga, Root and Cinder — these are just a few recent entries to a long list of one-word Philly spots that includes Aldine, Dizengoff, Parc, Vedge, Osteria, Southwark, Amada, Coeur, Biga and Zahav.

“The single word name is kind of timeless,” says Jason Evenchik, who presides over a full roster of such establishments, including Vintage, Time, Bar, Garage, Heritage and the soon-to-open Tiki.

There are some notable exceptions — the highly buzzworthy Wm. Mulherin’s Sons, the neighborhood taqueria La Casa de tu Madre and Bing Bing Dim Sum (which calls to mind the Bada Bing strip club from the “Sopranos”).

Generally speaking, less seems to be more for the inexact science of coming up with the right restaurant title.

“I think a lot of people are going to a minimalist feel in a lot of different ways, in restaurant design and development,” says Michael Welsh, founder, majority owner and managing partner of Brick and Mortar. “Those guys are carrying that through into the name.”

Restaurants get their monikers in various ways, whether it’s their address, as in 26 North BYOB (26 North Third St.); a chef-driven concept, such as (Peter) Serpico, (Greg) Vernick Food & Drink and Townsend (Wentz) or something more esoteric — Charlie was a sinner, anyone?

For most restaurateurs, the concept drives the name choice, not the other way around.

Naming a restaurant is “my least favorite thing, because once you have it, you have it — it’s forever,” says Valerie Safran, co-owner of multiple single-word restaurants and shops (Lolita, Barbuzzo, Jamonera, Verde and Grocery) and a couple that are not (Bud & Marilyn’s, Little Nonna’s).

“What we’ve learned along the way is that we will have an idea for a restaurant, and the name always comes after. What we want is a name that the customer can connect to in some way and get an idea of what the restaurant can be.”

With some names, the connection can be subject to interpretation — and mispronunciation. The one Safran regrets is Jamonera, because the Spanish word has proven to be a tongue-twister for many English speakers.

“We should have known that,” she says. “No matter the process, you want guests to feel comfortable.”

For Brigantessa, another mouthful of a name, co-owners Francis Cratil Cretarola, Cathy Lee and Joe Cicala sought inspiration from the history books. The name refers to an armed female fighter from Southern Italy who fought against the country’s late 19th century unification.

The obscure name seemed to fit a concept that sought to bring newfound respect — and authenticity — to pizza Napoletana and other Southern Italian dishes. “In Italy, for a long time, Southerners were taught it was something not to be proud of,” Cretarola says. “Now the word has come back as a proud word.”

Concerns about pronunciation or even friendliness to search engines didn’t play a role in the naming of Brigantessa or Cretarola’s first restaurant, the Abruzzo-themed Le Virtù (“The Virtues”), which references a special soup made once a year and the strong sense of community in that region of Italy.

“We decided we really wanted to bring the real deal,” Cretarola says. “The right people will eventually get it — sometimes they can’t pronounce the name, and that’s fine.”

When some customers find out the source of a name, they still don’t believe it.

“There was an incident at Le Virtù, when a guy asked why do we have a French name,” Cretarola says. “The server explained Virtù is a word that comes from Latin and doesn’t change — Le is just the formal plural of La. He explained the whole thing behind the soup. The guy said, that’s a nice story, but I’m not buying it.”

Even seemingly straightforward names like Assembly, the rooftop lounge at the Logan hotel, have a backstory: Assembly references the public service career of the hotel’s namesake, James Logan, a Colonial-era statesman who served as acting governor of Pennsylvania, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and mayor of Philadelphia, among other posts.

For Evenchik, the naming process starts with a restaurant’s aesthetic, food and drink, and includes consulting a visual thesaurus to encourage “non-linear thought,” and also his management team, his wife and sometimes even his young son.

“We were naming Heritage, and one of the ideas was to ask a toddler. I have one of those,” he recalls. “He wanted to go with The Purple Hippopotamus. It could have been funny…but it didn’t quite work.”

Instead, “Heritage” was chosen for its multiple layers of meaning, all of which could be ascribed to an American-themed tavern with live music. “It can mean food heritage, drink heritage, the jazz — all of those have a heritage, plus there’s a common heritage we share as Americans,” Evenchik says.

For his latest, Tiki, which is set to open in June in Midtown Village, the name easily fell into place. “Tiki, especially where it is in the city, it gives you a starting point — it’s a tiki bar. I like tiki cocktails and the tiki vibe, so I’m probably going to like that.”

The single exception to Evenchik’s embrace of the one-word name is La Casa de tu Madre. Among the rejects for the Bella Vista Mexican-themer were the Barrio, the Taqueria and Cerveceria. “I always wanted a bar called ‘Your Mom’s House’ — it was funny and a tongue-in-cheek nod to that kind of homey, relaxed sort of environment,” he says.

However, a single word doesn’t do it for Brick and Mortar’s Welsh, who also co-founded The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company. “I feel like one word doesn’t capture the feeling I want to invoke in people,” Welsh says.

Brick and Mortar takes its name from the concept of the “third place,” after home and work, that it aspires to be. The Franklin’s full name, which was inspired by a major alcohol ring that operated during the Great Depression, was intended to be a “conversation piece.” (It’s since been officially shortened to The Franklin.)

“We wanted to give people something to talk about,” Welsh says of the full Franklin name. “We didn’t want to be considered a speakeasy, but we wanted to feel exclusive, and the name played into that as well. If you didn’t know what it was, you weren’t going to go there anyway.”

Whether short or long, obvious or abstract, a restaurant’s name is just a way to get people in. What matters most is getting them to come back.

“The name is the beginning of that connection,” Safran says. “We still have to deliver when they come through the door. We want them to walk through the door and feel it — the name, the design, the food — everything.”

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