Would you care for a Filthy Andy-style sandwich? Maybe a Notorious BIG burger? Perhaps a Boston Strangler? These are a few of the curious dishes appearing on local menus, charming customers and allowing chefs to show a little extra sass. Cheeky names spice up a restaurant’s image, a sort of linguistic Tabasco that’s all about branding — even if the effort happens organically, behind a stove instead of around a conference table.
“Our barbecue pork comes with jamama sauce because, really, your mama can’t make it,” explains Chris Bauers, executive chef at Downtown Crossing’s JM Curley and Bogie’s Place, two essential stops on Boston’s adventurous-dining circuit. At Curley, sandwiches topped with fries and coleslaw are ordered “Filthy Andy-style.” Filthy Andy is a real guy: co-owner Andy Cartin, who enjoys sandwiches topped with fried potatoes. “It’s not like we’re trying to push our own agenda,” says Bauers. “But if something’s named some ridiculous thing, people are curious. This naming opens up a dialogue with customers and servers.”
Truly, once you’ve ordered something “Filthy Andy”-style, there are no more secrets.
The Gallows general manager Seth Yaffe agrees. He likes to name burgers after people. Not just any people, though. He honors cultural icons that his South End customers can appreciate. For instance, consider the Notorious BIG burger, named after the bygone rapper.
Uttering these names make diners feel like they’re part of a special club helmed by peers, especially at Boston’s close-knit neighborhood restaurants. “We grew up listening to hip-hop. It opens up the conversation level among customers. It gets them on the same page, and it gives everyone a sense of community,” Yaffe says. If you’re cool enough to mourn the Notorious BIG, well, you’re cool enough to eat the Gallows burger honoring him.
The same spirit exists at the Lower Depths near Fenway Park, where patrons “pimp” burgers with toppings like anchovies or peanut butter. Hot dogs have names like “White Trash” (beer-cheese dip and chips) and “Boston Strangler” (caramelized onions, macaroni and cheese). A salad starring fried chicken and tater tots is dubbed the “Fat Kid.” Such orders might not roll off a prim diner’s tongue, but most people go along with the fun.
Until recently, Jenna Figueiredo was the Lower Depths’ slang-slinger and general manager. “We wanted people to smile when they read the menu,” Figueiredo says. “I only got positive comments about it. I mean, a salad with tater tots — only a fat kid would eat it!” she says.
Sassy menus show that your restaurant doesn’t take itself too seriously, chefs say.
“Clever names are almost like a backlash against these scantily written menus,” says Mark O’Leary, executive chef at Chinatown’s Shojo. There, he serves Wu-Tang Tiger-Style ribs, honoring the band and song he was listening to while creating the dish. He also serves Chinatown beer mussels, so named because “some guys feel like they get muscles after a few beers,” O’Leary says. He now prints menus in-house instead of sending them to a professional printer because he renames his dishes so often. “I’m a big fan of puns.”
Lest one think that culinary mad libs are mere indulgence, let it be known that clever writing also benefits customers. Quirky names sell diners on dishes they might otherwise overlook or even fear. Tremont 647 chef de cuisine Molly Dwyer created Golden Girls French toast sticks to tease two line cooks “who acted like cranky old women. They were two big bearded guys, but so whiny! We called them the Golden Girls,” she says.
Her South End customers loved it. “The first day at brunch, we sold a million of them because everyone thought it was such a funny name,” she says. (Brunch seems a good place to get wacky: Take Back Bay Harry’s Beyoncé-themed brunch, which featured Love on Top flatbread, or the North End’s Parla, where dishes name-check Great Gatsby characters.)
Even if a dish isn’t cutely christened, wording influences its success. “It’s amazing how you can change one description of a dish and affect how it sells,” Tremont 647’s Dwyer says. She had been working on a brisket slider with wasabi mayonnaise. The wasabi seemed to alarm guests until a server described it as “spicy” mayonnaise instead. “This made a world of difference. It started to sell out.”
Liz Vilardi, co-owner of Kendall Square’s Belly, has used a list depicting celebrity mustaches to illustrate a wine’s fullness. Facial hair might not be the first thing to enter one’s mind when contemplating drinks, but Vilardi says her technique helps people relax. “Southern Rhones From Pencil Thin to Fully Evolved” uses the bristles of John Waters, Tom Selleck, and Groucho Marx as learning tools. “The list is irreverent and edgy, like Belly, and like me,” Vilardi says.
Indeed, for the strategic restaurateur, a menu crystallizes a business’s entire image. Take the Tap Trailhouse, a restaurant near Faneuil Hall from Boston Nightlife Ventures, which runs spots like Forum and Noche. The group hired Attleboro-based Stebbings Partners as creative consultants. Stebbings has worked with national entities like Guy Fieri and the Central Park Boathouse on branding efforts.
To create an authentic Revolutionary War-era tap house, the team analyzed historical texts to find just the right typeface styles and descriptors. Bar bites became “vittles”; sides were dubbed “vegetation.” The menu’s font resembles a Colonial-era scrawl.
“In the restaurant world, everyone won’t try each dish or drink or buy merchandise. But everyone who walks in will be given a menu. So, in a lot of ways, menus are the most direct line of contact the brand has with the public. That means painstaking detail is necessary,” says Stebbings copywriter Terrence Joyce.
A little confidence doesn’t hurt, either. When Mei Mei’s Margaret “Mei” Li created her now-classic scallion pancake egg sandwich, the name was clear. “I distinctly remember trying the sandwich that morning and thinking, ‘This sandwich is f-ing awesome!’ . . . Two slow-poached and then fried eggs? Twice the awesome! And there, the Double Awesome was born,” she recalls.
The dish is now a staple at her food truck and restaurant near Kenmore Square. “Feedback is almost always, ‘Wow, the sandwich really lives up to its name,’ and other various jokes and repetitions of the word ‘awesome.’ Which gets kind of old. But at the same time, it’s pretty awesome,” she says.
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Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.