Here’s some free advice for future restaurants, particularly those of my hometown of Indianapolis: Just say no to the ampersand. Do not name your restaurant [noun] & [noun].
Ampersand abuse has already reached epidemic levels in hipster restaurant havens like Los Angeles, New York, and Portland. Indy is usually the last to be infected by these bi-coastal trends, so there’s still time for you. Yes, a handful of local craft restaurants and cocktail lounges have already fallen prey to the allure of the curvy “and” symbol: Spoke & Steele, Plow & Anchor, The Ball & Biscuit. But the rest of you can still evade its seductive call.
Because the ampersand is nothing if not sexy. Its curvaceous form and interlacing lines make it the pin-up starlet of typography. Graphic designers adore it. Just ask my wife, who would sooner go back to designing in QuarkXpress than to be forced never to use an ampersand again.
Yes, the ampersand is pretty, but there’s not a whole lot going on beneath the surface. Its name comes from the slurring of the phrase “and per se and,” which is actually how people concluded the recitation of the alphabet in the 1800s. Eventually reason prevailed, and the ampersand was banished from the alphabet. But it persists, as pretty things often do, in popular culture.
The craft restaurant and cocktail movement has glommed onto the ampersand due to its association with the golden age of handcrafted goods. In the 1900s, when making things by hand was a necessity rather than a trend, businesses used the ampersand for the sheer expediency of it. If two men went into business together, they didn’t labor over what to name it. They just called it “[Name] & [Name].” Using an ampersand instead of “and” in those days was a simple matter of conserving resources. Back then, the materials and labor required for signage, letterheads, etc. were exorbitantly expensive. If you could shave off a couple of extra letters, why not?
Today, though, no such excuse exists for ampersand abuse. And restaurants aren’t using it to connect the names of owners. They’re using it as a bridge between two often-only-faintly-related nouns to create a “whimsical” name that has little or nothing to do with their restaurant experience. And they do so at great peril to their brand. Take Plow & Anchor and Spoke & Steele—so far, the only two fine dining restaurants in Downtown Indianapolis afflicted by the ampersand. I’ve eaten at both places, and they offer very different experiences. Yet I can’t keep their names straight in my mind.
If you’re a restaurant owner and you insist on using an ampersand, then at least use it in the service of a name that distinguishes you from the pack. This, for example, is an ampersand name I can get behind. Better yet, just don’t use an ampersand.
As a future restaurateur, you have a golden opportunity. Few other types of businesses allow so much liberty in choosing a cool name. In a lot of ways, naming a restaurant is like naming a rock band. You not only can but should choose a name that boldly reflects your creative spirit. Because cooking, at its highest form, is a deeply creative act. And nothing suggests a dearth of creativity more than blind adherence to a trend.
Think of it like this: Back in the ‘90s, in another ridiculous trend, a bunch of crappy post-grunge bands started putting numbers in their names: Matchbox 20, Seven Mary Three, Third Eye Blind, 3 Doors Down, 311, Eve 6. What does anyone with taste think of those bands now? How do you want people to think of your restaurant 15 or 20 years from now?
Don’t be the Seven Mary Three of restaurants. Believe me, nobody wants that.