Laurel Sutton, Senior Strategist at Catchword Brand Name Development

When the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top 100 Bay Area Restaurants 2015” guide arrived today, I started paging through eagerly. But not to see if my favorite spot made the list, or even to see if I’d eaten at any of the top 100, as most people do, in the special Bay Area competitive spirit that can lead to knife fights over the last fresh bunch of arugula in the Berkeley Bowl. No, I was looking at the restaurant names in hopes of finding at least one that sounded nothing like a restaurant. I was not disappointed.

Of course many of the top San Francisco/Bay Area restaurant names are either French or Italian, no matter what kind of cuisine is served, because France and Italy = good food, better drink, and a rarified dining atmosphere that’s worth the many dollar signs listed in the “Prices” column of the guide. The trend may have started with Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, which opened in 1971 and which has remained as the symbol of high-quality, locally-sourced, and lovingly prepared dishes. (Chez Panisse is named after Honoré Panisse, a character in a trilogy of Marcel Pagnol films about working class life in Marseille, France called Marius, Fanny and César.)

In the category called “Northern California”, we find the names Atelier Crenn (atelier is French for “workshop, studio”; Crenn is the surname of the chef), Camino (Italian for “fireplace, hearth” – a massive fireplace is part of the kitchen), Chez Panisse (naturellement), Molina (Molina is a Spanish/Italian surname that refers to a person who lives, works, or manages a mill), Piccino (Italian for “teeny”, reflecting the size of the original location), Picco (“peak” in Italian), Saison (French for “season”), and Sante (Italian for “salute”, French for “health”).

In the “Italian” category, of course, almost all of the 17 restaurants have Italian names. The exceptions are Flour+Water (the ingredients for pasta), A16 (the name of the highway that runs from Naples to Canosa, Pugli in Italy), Redd Wood (evoking the surname of the chef, Richard Reddington, its wood-burning oven, and the local redwoods), and SPQR (an acronym for senatus populusque romanus, SPQR translates to “The People and Senate of Rome” and was the emblem of the Roman Empire). The rest of the “Italian” list is filled with names like Acquerello (“watercolors”), Ciccio (a childhood nickname of the owner), Delfina (a woman’s name), Gialina (ditto), Poggio (“a special hillside place”), and Tosca (after the opera).

All these names are immediately evocative and even expected, if not unique or trademarkable. (A quick browse through TESS shows that most of the above-referenced restaurants have not bothered to trademark their names. How many “Tosca” eating establishments are likely to exist in the US alone? Dozens? Hundreds? Yet none of them have trademarks!) But the real finds are those entrepreneurs who throw caution to the wind and come up with unique – if opaque – names.

2015’s Top Restaurant list gives us Hopscotch (drinks made of hops and scotch), Trick Dog (a vintage piggy bank), Press (a wine press), and my favorite, State Bird Provisions. Opened in 2011, this restaurant features the quail, the state bird of California, in both bird and egg form. At first glance, the name seems to indicate a grain and feed store (provisions for birds) rather than a restaurant (provisions made of birds); it takes a moment to make the semantic shift once you understand what they’re selling. It does pique one’s curiosity – do many people know that the quail is the state bird of California? (Not me!) And, as a bonus, the name is actually trademarked. Good work!

Although “disruptive” restaurant names, like State Bird Provisions or Trick Dog, may initially be harder to remember or associate with their business, over time they have a better chance of building a unique brand – as well as staking out IP protectable rights. In a sea of Piccos and Poggios and Piccinos, a name like Hopscotch stands out, and offers more than a typical dining experience. But as with any other venture, a good name won’t save a bad restaurant. Here, the proof of the pudding is literally in the eating.