The city of Keene sits in southwest New Hampshire, 38 square miles of beautiful ponds, parks and a Main Street lined with elm trees. Only about 23,000 people live in the small, picturesque New England town. More than 95 percent of Keene is white but that’s not to assume anything about its culinary tastes — there’s a bevy of restaurants that serve Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Mediterranean, among other global cuisines. And, on the first floor of the tidy brick-lined building that serves as City Hall, there’s a new restaurant in town: Pho Keene Great.
The Vietnamese restaurant, its owner and the town all hit national news in January when it put up a “Coming Soon” sign with its distinctive name and logo, featuring a woman in a bamboo hat slurping noodles. That didn’t fly with Keene’s City Manager, Elizabeth Dragon, who suggested that there was something offensive about the moniker — after all, the noodle dish pho is pronounced fuh. Isabelle Jolie, the restaurant’s first-generation Vietnamese owner, argued that it was a playful tribute to the city and not profanity, regardless of how much it sounded like, well, “fuckin’ great.”
“To be honest, at first in talking with friends and my business partners, I wanted to keep ‘Pho Keene Great’ a slogan rather than the official name because I wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with any issues for government permits, which of course we did encounter,” Jolie tells me. “We talked a lot about whether a comical name could work for an upscale, nice restaurant. I decided it was okay.”
In doing so, she joined a long lineage of pho-shop owners engaging in provocative wordplay in an attempt to get customers through the door. Look in any major U.S. city, and the odds are you’ll find a Vietnamese spot riffing on this gag: What the Pho, Pho-King Delicious and Pho Q Long, along with less profane cousins like Pho Shizzle and UnPhoGettable (groan). And in Jolie’s case, the tiff with the city ended up coming with a very thick silver lining: thousands of people chiming in on social media with their support. People from as far as Houston, South Florida and even France bought T-shirts with the Pho Keene Great logo and posted themselves smiling in them on Facebook. The celebrity magician Penn Jillette, who grew up near Keene, got in on the action, too.
I had never really thought much about these punny restaurant names, even though I come from a restaurant family and regularly eat at Vietnamese places in L.A. with similarly pun-related titles (Pho Show, Phorage, the now-defunct 9021Pho). Frankly, the decision to choose kitchiness over something more elegant when naming a restaurant always seemed bizarre to me, something that Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor for Eater, agrees with. “I have too much social anxiety to say a name that’s supposed to be a funny joke but isn’t,” she says with a chuckle. “I wonder if focusing too intensely on coming up with a clever name hides a lack of consideration about what’s happening inside the restaurant. Like a great restaurant doesn’t need a joke to make it worth going to, you know?”
Surprisingly, joke-y restaurant names are a far newer practice than I had imagined — albeit one that distills together language, culture and taboo into something both stupid and profound at the same time. The Western-style restaurant as we know it only began to emerge after the French Revolution, as dining was democratized for a new middle class. The names of these establishments stayed conservative from the mid-18th century through much of the 20th, following common naming conventions like a proprietor’s name (like Wiltons, in London) or an evocative image (La Tour D’Argent, or “The Silver Tower,” in Paris).
Then we get to the mid-20th century, and things start to go off the rails. Buttoned-up American pragmatism amid the hangover of World War II faded into the loose, open-minded, joke’s-on-you counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Literal and figurative color filled American homes thanks to technological advancements in television and film. And with these images came jokes — lots and lots of jokes in the campy, slapstick-y, sex-loving style that now helps define American humor around the world, in the form of TV shows and comedy specials and advertising.
Actually trying to figure out the earliest example of a punny restaurant in the U.S. turned out to be an impossible task. But some research makes me believe that the classic “breastaurant” Hooters, though not a pun but a campy double entendre, was a seminal moment in American naming history, given that Steve Martin had popularized the slang term for boobs in the 1970s and 1980s before Hooters was founded in 1983. The writer and activist Susan Sontag once wrote in her definitive 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” that “Camp… is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not… camp is a mode of seduction, one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation.”
There’s hardly a better description for the silly, bawdy restaurant names that can be seen all across the country. And there’s something about the English language and American culture that fuels a desire to be funny, regardless of whether you’re an immigrant like Jolie or a longtime native like Ken Hersey, the owner of Dirty Dick’s Crab House. Hersey grew up in the Northern Virginia-D.C. area, and often traveled south to the Outer Banks community of North Carolina on vacation. About 40 years ago, Hersey was sitting on the beach next to his friend Dick Anderson, remarking how local fishermen were hauling in nets brimming with blue crabs. The downside: There was nowhere to sit down with his friends and eat a bushel. “And I said, ‘You know what? Just for the hell of it, one of these days I’m going to come down here and open a crab house, and I’m going to call it Dirty Dick’s,” Hersey recalls over the phone. “I got my crabs from Dirty Dick’s!”
It was a typically dumb and boyish joke involving penises and STDs, but an inside joke that got Hersey and his friends laughing through the trip. Yet Hersey saw something else in the punchline, too. In 1995, the homebuilder by trade decided to collaborate with some partners and open that crab shack in the Outer Banks. Before the doors even opened, Hersey had ordered about 2,000 shirts stamped with his old gag: “I got my crabs at Dirty Dick’s Crab House.” “It happened during the spring break for the folks in Tidewater, Virginia. They were all coming down, and it was mostly high schoolers in their four-wheel-drives, getting on the beach and all that. So I see this young man and his girlfriend — he drives into our parking lot,” Hersey recalls. “He says, ‘I know you gotta have shirts.’ We did. And back then, all the young people had CB radios — it was a big deal. And this kid gets on his radio and says everyone needs to get down here for these Dirty Dick’s shirts.”
The entire 2,000-count order of shirts sold out before the restaurant even opened. And the Dirty Dick’s moniker has survived and expanded, into three restaurants total. Robb Barker has been general manager for a decade at the restaurant in Nags Head, North Carolina, and admits that the entire concept seemed like a bad idea at first glance. “I thought it was going to be gimmicky, the whole thing,” he says. “I came from a fine-dining background, after all.” Instead, he’s been surprised to find that even in the so-called Bible Belt, people are still drawn to the name for how silly it is. Some pull off the road to take a picture with the Dirty Dick’s sign. Others stop in for a kitschy gift and a cold drink. Funniest of all, he says, are the parents who end up there because their kids wouldn’t stop saying “Dirty Dick’s” over and over on their trip. Hersey took a gamble on an exceedingly inappropriate name, and somehow it’s paid off in an unlikely locale.
“When we opened the bigger restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, one evening the First Baptist Church bus pulled up in our parking lot and I said, ‘Uh, oh, here it comes,’” Hersey says. “Now, these were senior citizens — from the church. They loved it. And it showed that I knew the joke had legs.”
Jolie’s own background couldn’t be further from Hersey’s. Jolie was only a toddler when she fled the war in Vietnam with her mother, who hoped to hit the reset button in a quiet corner of the U.S. She grew up eating her mother’s Vietnamese cooking, wondering what it meant to leave a homeland while learning to navigate life 8,500 miles away. Later, she left a career in marketing to focus on starting her own business with her sister, who was sick with Lupus and couldn’t find a job because of it, despite endless applications. The duo decided that making simple Vietnamese dishes like rice-paper rolls and pho noodle soup to sell at the Keene farmer’s market could be a way to stabilize their income. Part of that hustle was figuring out a marketing scheme.
“I came about the ‘Pho Keene Great’ slogan really innocently because, well, I was broke. I just knew everyone loves a T-shirt, and I could put what I do best on the shirt,” Jolie adds. “I was joking with my friend Craig, and he said the pho isn’t just good, it’s great.”
The sisters were able to save funds and get a food stall open, but while planning for a full brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2016, Jolie’s sister grew more ill. She died that August, and Jolie wondered how she could continue the project without her partner. But she also recognized that with her mother’s cooking, a customer base from her mobile food hustle and a funny name, she could make a legitimate splash in Keene. The waves of support from people around the country after the tiff with the city manager helped bolster her belief. She’s now in the final stretch of construction, and will open Pho Keene Great within weeks.
“I never felt it was vulgar because I don’t say the name that way and I don’t think about it like that. But I felt because it’s an American alliteration, it would be funny,” she tells me. “I think fusion is how you can stand out. You take a part of one culture, and blend it with your own background. I love Korean barbecue, and a lot of people don’t know that the sauce for the beef banh mi sandwich is influenced by Korean food. So I’m not afraid of borrowing.”
The line between offense and fun remains a fine one in this country. Whole Foods caught huge criticism for debuting a rice-bowl franchise named Yellow Fever, even though it was the brainchild of an Asian woman. Meanwhile, We Suki Suki, a food-hall type concept in Atlanta, is the subject of glowing stories from VICE and other media outlets despite its questionable title and outright offensive menu antics (the main operator, a Vietnamese woman, says “suki suki” references Japanese slang for cute-love instead of a sucky-sucky hooker joke).
What does all of this say about the art of building a restaurant? Joy Limanon, a longtime publicist in L.A. who works with a diverse range of restaurants, thinks that the old mantra is key: know your audience. It helps to be able to tell a good story about the name, like Hersey and Jolie do, she adds. “We’re a melting pot, so people have different reference points. Anything could get misinterpreted. If you’re marketing to a mass audience, then I suppose you have to be more careful. But I was working with Little Fatty here in L.A., and you just think, Little Fatty… uh, that’s not gonna work well. But the owner had an explanation for why that was a childhood nickname, why it matters, how it relates to the concept. That can be all the difference,” Limanon says.
I’ve certainly changed my mind about them. These weird restaurants with provocative names have suddenly become like little gems in my mind — worth seeking out because they shouldn’t work, given how the restaurant business is deeply conservative. Operators play it safe, and it’s no surprise that the most profitable ideas are the ones that can be most easily replicated all across the country. And even when the names are supposed to be thoughtful, they often follow bland trends that you can find in every cosmopolitan city (including the weirdly faux-historic “& Sons”). As Dixler Canavan adds, “A woman’s name, or the ampersand construction where it’s blank & blank, those have very historic underpinnings. So those are two current trends that feel very familiar and classic,” she says. “But really, this whole thing speaks to how hard it is to properly name a restaurant. There’s a fine line between cool and stupid.”
At least a lot of people seem to love a double entendre. And sometimes, the joke goes the other way across the cultural border, too. One of my favorite Mexican restaurants near my apartment is Pinches Tacos, where they serve up a mean lengua sope with strong red salsa. I might be an adult, but it still makes me smile whenever I recall that “pinches” is a perfect homonym for the Spanish word for fuckin’.