Pabu, Pagu, Porto, Mida, Moona, Ruka: Incantation? Or buzzy restaurants that opened recently around Boston?
Hint: These days, if you have no idea what a word means, go with hot restaurant.
“Restaurant names used to describe some sort of a cuisine or a feeling you’d get,” said Lindsay MacKinnon, a hospitality consultant. “Now? No offense, but I feel like they are obscure just to get attention.”
What’s going on?
Douglass Williams, the chef-owner of Mida, an Italian restaurant in the South End, says the spate of Dr. Seuss-y sounding names is coincidence. “As all of life is a coincidence.”
Perhaps, but when the baby-naming guru Laura Wattenberg comes into Boston from her home in Winchester, she sees something deeper in all the “unintelligible” names.
“Name trends work in a reactive way to the previous generation,” said Wattenberg, author of “The Baby Name Wizard .” “To sound fresh you have to take a turn from what was done 10 years ago.
“If we have just come off the era of the ampersand or place-based names” — No. 9 Park, Tremont 647 — “the trend now is you don’t even say what you are. You just announce you are here, and of course you want to come visit us.”
The ampersands are still with us, mind you. In the past few months alone, Brick & Ash, Fin Point Oyster Bar & Grille, Monument Restaurant & Tavern, and Zef Cicchetti & Raw Bar have joined Alden & Harlow, B&G Oysters, Grille 23 & Bar, Kirkland Tap & Trotter and Puritan & Company on the local & scene.
This trend has been so pervasive, a satirical “hipster business name generator” continues to pump out an ampersand-ridden selection of names: “Lake & Breakfast.” “Cipher & Thieves.” “Grass & Zebra.”
But now the two-syllable, one-word name has entered the slipstream. This is not to be confused with the also-popular one-syllable, one-word name; these sound as though they’ve been ripped from the cardboard pages of a children’s book: Fork! (North Carolina), Cook (Newton).
Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. says that in a time of ever-changing culinary and dietary movements, a vague name can serve a purpose.
“It gives the operator license to adapt the menu to what’s happening trend-wise.”
As diners searching Yelp or TripAdvisor might wonder, where did all the Pagus and Midas and Moonas come from?
Like new parents who thought they were choosing a unique name only to find four other Emmas or Aidens in the baby swim class, restaurateurs say they aren’t trying to be on trend, they’re just trying to find a name that’s meaningful.
Take Mida, for example. The name means “he gives me” in Italian, Williams said, and reflects the restaurant’s generous approach.
“That’s my style of hospitality,” he said. “I wouldn’t give away a house, but people who know me know I’m generous — not just with [things] but with hugs, with smiles, with time, with energy.”
In today’s world of high real estate, labor, and food costs, in which restaurants compete not just for customers but for staff, so much thought often goes into a name that it gets its own chapter on the company website.
The website of Moona, a new Eastern Mediterranean mezze restaurant in Inman Square, explains the name while offering a cultural lesson.
“The word ‘moona’ or ‘mouneh’ in slang comes from the Arabic word mana or ma’oona, meaning ‘storing,’ ” the site reads. “It’s the English equivalent of the ‘pantry.’ In the past, especially in remote villages in the Arab World, the moona was prepared during the bountiful harvest for consumption during winter’s harsh days.”
Another new restaurant owner, Tracy Chang, the chef behind Pagu in Central Square, said finding just the right name took her about seven years.
“I knew I wanted something that was two syllables and easy to pronounce in any language, because I wanted Japanese and Spanish to be the main flavors,” she said.
The Japanese word “Geta” came to her. It’s mellifluous, but its meaning wasn’t quite right. “It’s a wooden sandal worn by geishas,” she said. “Why would my restaurant be called ‘wooden sandal’?
“I racked my brain for a couple of years and realized that whenever I stress out about stuff I just hang out with my pugs.”
For a while she joked about opening a pastry shop called Le Pug Noir, which eventually led her to Pagu, the Japanese word for pug.
The growing use of creative names may be fueled in part by the increasing involvement of restaurant consultants, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “That pushes the restaurant to think a little differently than they might within their four walls.”
One thing consultants certainly aren’t advising is that restaurateurs name their restaurants . . . after themselves. The eponymous restaurant is largely a thing of the past, said Paul Freedman, author of “Ten Restaurants That Changed America ” and a history professor at Yale University.
“If you look at names 100 years ago, a very large proportion just had the name of [the] proprietor or founder,” he said. “That is uncommon now, even with a chef with an ego.”
Ed Doyle, the president of RealFood Consulting, looked back at legendary now-closed Boston restaurants that were named for their owners — Jasper White’s Jasper’s on the waterfront, Gordon and Fiona Hamersley's Hamersley's Bistro in the South End — and pointed to a downside.
“When you think about selling that restaurant, part of what you think about selling is the brand that you have established, but no one is going to come in and run Hamersley's after Gordon and Fiona left, and it’s the same thing at Jasper’s.”
There are other considerations now too, Doyle said: “Is the URL going to be available? What’s the Twitter handle? How’s it going to search? Will people be able to find your restaurant? If it’s too general — if you name it ‘The General Store’ — it’s never going to come up.”
So a note to those opening new places: The one thing you may not want to name your restaurant is Restaurant. But A4cade, a collaboration between Area Four and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, just opened in Cambridge. The other numbers are still available.