06 August 2009

“But There Is No Mr. L’Espalier!”, or, The Bane of the Grammar-Stickler Restaurant Critic

I believe most people are like me in that they harbor secret pet peeves, petty grudges against their fellow human beings that they hide because airing them would reveal them as cranks, obsessives, nutballs. “Really? That tiny issue bothers you? Who the heck cares about that? Who the hell even thinks about that?!” Luckily, I have a blog, and blogs were practically made for confessing these kinds of niggling idiosyncrasies. My private hell is being a grammar stickler, the kind that Lynne Truss describes in her slim, hilarious volume “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves”. Further, as a restaurant critic, I chafe at a very particular sub-order of grammatical irritant: the way people turn restaurant names into possessives.

It has bugged me since I was a kid: why do people have to append an apostrophe/letter-S to every restaurant name? Legal Sea Foods becomes Legal’s. Sonsie becomes Sonsie’s. It’s like people can’t wrap their minds around the notion that not every restaurant is named after an owner. The doofus logic seems to be, “This dude Sal owns a pizza place and calls it Sal’s Pizza, ergo it's L’Espalier’s, as in Mr. L'Espalier's Place.” Hearing this makes my blood boil. I know for a fact that it is L'Espalier, not L'Espalier's.

Brooking this solecism is a daily trial. Consider these renditions of popular Boston restaurant names as frequently spoken aloud by locals: Mistral’s, Beehive’s, Neptune’s, Silvertone’s, Pigalle’s, Aquitaine’s, La Voile’s, Douzo’s, EVOO’s, Hungry Mother’s, O Ya’s, Vlora’s. Yet if you go to the restaurant and look at the sign, you'll find no apostrophe+s in its name. To me, that errantly tacked-on possessive is as stupid and grating as a promo for The Real Housewives of New Jersey, only I can’t just turn it off. Everybody, but everybody, does it.

Does this common habit make you wince, clench your teeth, growl inwardly? If not, you are a normal person: move along. But if you’re a budding restaurateur who shares my absurd affliction, I believe I can help. Free of any consulting fees, I offer the following guide to selecting a restaurant name that won’t get you a damnable apostrophe+s wrongly bolted on, with real-life examples and counter-examples:
  • Don’t pick anything that can easily be mistaken for a girl’s name. It’s not Clio’s, Sorellina’s, Regina’s, Carmen’s, Stella’s, Laurel’s, or Mamma Maria’s, but people love saying them that way – apparently they just feel better thinking some lady owns the place. Masculine names aren’t much better: people still refer to Dali’s and Da Vinci’s, even if they suspect that the famous dead guy doesn’t really own a piece of the joint.
  • Avoid words that end in a vowel, especially Italian and Spanish ones; they’re too easy to pronounce with the bogus possessive attached. That way you won’t be seething like the owners who have to endure malapropisms like Cuchi Cuchi’s, Vee Vee's, Scampo’s, Rocca’s, Grezzo’s, Sportello’s, Erbaluce’s, Grotto’s, Picco’s, Pomodoro’s, Via Matta’s, Toro’s, Rialto’s, and Chacarero’s.
  • Try tongue-twisters: choose a word ending in “s” (ideally non-plural: see below) or a difficult consonant cluster. Who can be bothered with the lip-work necessary to pronounce Radius’s, Meritage’s, Tossed’s, Rendezvous’s, or Les Zygomates’s? No one.
  • Use physical locations: no sane person would think that Green Street might be the owner of a restaurant and so call that restaurant Green Street’s. Try rooms with “The” in front (The Oak Room, The Wine Cellar, The Blue Room), buildings (Church, Banq, House of Tibet, Peach Farm, Roadhouse), or addresses (Tory Row, No. 9 Park, Scollay Square, Kingston Station, Deep Ellum). No one comfortably says, “I just adore that place, The Butcher Shop’s.”
  • Consider vague nouns, the more abstract the better, like District, Equator, Clink, Sage, Blue Ginger, Coda, Drink, Elephant Walk, Gaslight, Greek Corner, and Summer Winter. You won’t hear, “Let’s go to India Quality’s!”
  • Befriend non-Latinate foreign words like Uni, Dok Bua, Kaze, Lala Rokh, Mela, Oishii, Tashi Delek, and Teranga. Those could be names, but most Anglophone Americans will feel uncertain about them, and thus be less likely to slap on the possessive.
  • Use numbers to repel the apostrophe+s, like Bin 26, Cambridge, 1., and Grill 23.
  • Even if you're comfortable with possessives, think carefully before you include an apostrophe. Is there really a Mr. Soya at Soya’s? Does a Ms. Zebra sit on the board of Zebra’s Bistro? I’d love to believe there’s a Pepper Sky running Pepper Sky’s Thai Sensation – she sounds like the star of a 1960s TV show about a secret agent who favors Mod fashions – but I suspect the truth is duller.
  • To discourage unwanted written possessives, employ weird spellings, shouty ALL-CAPS, mixed case, all lowercase, and/or gimmicky punctuation, like Jer-Ne, OM, LiNEaGe, dbar, Mooo…, ZuZu!, and STIX. These already look bizarre enough; maybe folks will resist putting the extra crap on the end.
  • Watch out for plural nouns; idiots may pronounce them properly, but in writing will jam in unwanted apostrophes. Just ask the poor souls at Pops (the chef/owner’s nickname), Josephs Two (run by two guys named Joseph, like Wise Men Three), Salts, Olives, Ten Tables, Anchovies, and Gargoyles on the Square. (Honestly, there’s no Uncle Gargoyle, so why would you write it as Gargoyle's?)
Phew, that made me feel better. Next, I must attempt to cleanse the English-speaking world of the Superfluous Pop-Culture “The”. You know, as in: the names of those movies are “Big Night” and “Alien”, not “The Big Night” and “The Alien”. Also, the name of that band is Talking Heads, not The Talking Heads. (That must have chapped their hides, too, as they used an album title to point this out.) Then I have to get Bostonians to stop referring to our central parks as the Boston Commons and Public Gardens: it's Boston Common and the Public Garden, you know. What do you mean, you don’t care?!