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VOL. 43 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 15, 2019

The importance of right name for restaurants, column

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With apologies to both Shakespeare and Star Trek fans, the theme for my first Ledger column, “By Any Other Name,’’ hints at the peculiar challenge of naming things.

As a dedicated food writer, storyteller, features columnist and critic for more than 20 years, I had to come up with a name for this new, dedicated space generously offered to me by Lyle Graves and Cindy Smith. It will appear here, until further notice, every other week, starting today.

There are a lot of bad names for food-centric writing, like “Fork it Over,” “In Pour Taste,” “The Crumb Snatcher” and “My Bouche, Amused.” While I relish a bad pun and delicious irony, my wife helped me retire the handful of dreadful ideas I came up with while left to myself.

I ended up with a name for this column, thanks again to my long-suffering wife, who was simply staring back at me from the page.

“Culinarity” is a word I invented almost 19 years ago. I know I invented it because the internet told me I could buy the domain name. It’s a mashup of culinary curiosity, my abiding interest in the intersection of culture and the realms of food, drink and general merry-making.

Twice a month, I’ll take a look at Nashville’s groaning-at-the-seams restaurant scene along with other food-related stories, as well as beverages and bars. I’ll try to oscillate between the minutiae and the big picture and keep you both entertained and informed.

If naming a column is this hard, there’s a world of hand-wringing that goes into the names of the food world, starting with restaurants, the brick and mortar equivalent of children.

Do you put your own name on the door, like Pat Martin’s eponymous barbecue joint, or choose a relative, like Martin’s uncle “Hugh Baby?”

Is minimalism your thing, like Husk, or Folk or Etch? Is it meant to be evocative of another place or time, or simply geo-located by its neighborhood like Germantown Cafe and 5th & Taylor. (Or 12th & Porter)

Does the name trip lightly off the tongue and fit neatly into a social media strategy and domain name? These are all important considerations that will mean nothing if the food’s not good and the guests not welcomed.

When I think of the iconic places in town, past and present, almost all are family names: Jimmy Kelly’s, Swett’s, Varallo’s, Arnold’s, Rotier’s, Faison’s, Melfi’s and Hap Towne’s. They are the culinary directory of our past as names like McDonald’s, Starbucks and Chili’s splice our commercial arteries with the sameness of a thousand towns.

Food names and menu language, too, are as important as the business monikers. While the exotica of foreign names once signaled snooty pretension, diners are more sophisticated today and seem to better handle dishes written in their native languages.

Puns, too, go a long way in amusing diners when not completely confusing them. Thank you Mikey Corona of Mockingbird (I Eat, Therefore I Ham) and his partner in crime Maneet Chauhan at the new Chaatable (O.M.Ghee!).

Some diners have become so adventurous they will surrender disbelief and wait for the surprise of a dish simply called “surf and turf,” where the ocean is a scoop of foamed sea urchin roe on top of some earth constructed of fried dandelion blossoms embedded in goat-hoof gelatin on a bed of coffee bean grounds.

While I made up that last dish, I promise you the inventive folks at Bastion use this method of “pars pro toto” menu design with delicious results.

Finally, in the school of naming that seems to be derived from late nights of extreme intoxication, there is the world of craft cocktails. Colorful, often literary in wit, drinks, like the names of paint colors, often defy any sense of reality, which is why we are probably drinking them in the first place.

I’ll round out this lesson in naming conventions on the broadest of scales – our fair city. The Convention and Visitors Corporation, which by the way changed its name from Bureau to Corporation, has played an exhaustive role in turning Music City in to the ‘It City’ during this time of unprecedented growth.

We have long been a destination for lovers of country music. That much we know. We have also been an alluring place to visit for folks from the United Kingdom, who year after year maintain their affinity for country, roots and Americana music, probably because many of their folk melodies were the font for much of what drifted out of the Appalachian hollows in the last century.

What does this have to do with food, though? First off, Nashville’s restaurant scene had matured to the point that it has, to a small extent, become a bona fide dining destination. Author and former-Nashvillian Jay McInerney went so far as to call us a place where jetsetters are willing to travel for a bite to eat.

Places like the Catbird Seat, recently named No. 16 in a top 100 American restaurants list, do indeed draw serious diners to our local tables.

Back to the CVC and how London came calling.

Our official cheerleaders invited a half-dozen food writers to town last week from some of the best publications across the pond. I had the good fortune to have breakfast with them and give a sort of biscuit dreams and gravy wishes orientation.

Three days and a flash flood into their trip, I caught up with Chris Allsop, who writes for the British-based Sunday Times Travel Magazine.

He was indeed happy to see the sun last Saturday and was basking in the creativity he found in our food scene. “It’s an engaging blend of tradition and innovation,” Allsop said after three full days of eating, sightseeing and music.

He also found hot chicken from Prince’s south-side location quite delicious, but admitted confusion about the white bread. “(I) can’t work out if the white bread soaking up all the rub is intended to mitigate or increase the heat. Seems almost like a trick is being played.”

After a lunch at Henrietta Red in Germantown, Allsop and his colleagues boarded the direct flight to Heathrow and will soon pen their impressions of our dining landscape. I have all the confidence that the reports will be flattering.

Frankly, despite concerns that growth is out of hand, from a dining perspective, I don’t think we have the critical mass to support what we have now, let alone this and what’s coming. Tourism augments what the locals can, and will support on their own. Foreign tourism, is lagniappe.

Are we ready to rename Music City as Food City? Of course not, but we’ve never eaten better than we are right now, and for people who like to plan their vacations by filling the space between meals, call us anything you want, except late for dinner.

Jim Myers is a former restaurant critic, features columnist, hog wrangler, abattoir manager, Tennessee Squire and Kentucky Colonel. Reach him at jim@culinarity.com

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