Sunday, October 08, 2006

Can't stomach rote restaurant names

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, September 30th:

One day last week when I was riding the TTA down Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, I looked out to the left, and saw something that made me cringe. It wasn't the State campus or the North Carolina GOP Headquarters or anything like that. It was a restaurant named the Golden Dragon.

After four months of my column, you can probably tell that I'm concerned about walkable communities, affordable housing and governments reaching out to their citizens. But another issue I'm really concerned about is the stereotypical naming of Chinese restaurants.

It started one day two falls ago when my best friend and I were driving down US-29 from Charlottesville to Danville on the way back to Chapel Hill from a brief vacation. As we drove through the rural Virginia countryside every 20 miles or so we would see a Chinese restaurant: Forbidden Garden, Red China, Shanghai Dragon, Peking Panda, and the list goes on and on.

By the time we hit Lynchburg we started predicting what the name of the next one would be. It was always a pretty good bet that it would have something to do with a panda, dragon, wall or garden and that it would either have the name of Shanghai or Peking or the color of gold or red in the title.

Since then, as I have traveled much of the Carolinas, I continue to play close attention to the names of Chinese restaurants wherever I go. And I continue to be astonished by how universally these establishments have bizarrely formulaic names, especially in more rural areas.

It seems a sad commentary on the ability of Americans to embrace foreign cultures. I don't necessarily blame the proprietors of these restaurants for the names. No doubt market research has told them that in order to attract business they need to play on this small set of characteristics that Americans comfortably associate with China.

But imagine if you were an American tourist in China, desperately wanting to eat some food that reminded you of home. What if all the restaurants were named New York Big Apple, Red White and Blue Buffalo or Grand Canyon Eagle? Chances are you'd be pretty irritated by the random amalgamations of American symbols. I know that I would find it to be stereotypical and culturally insensitive.

Fortunately, here in Chapel Hill most of our Chinese restaurants don't fall victim to this phenomenon. Arguably the most popular and most tasty one in Chapel Hill has been Village Plaza's Charlie's Chinese, which was recently sold. People liked the food there, but they also liked Charlie Tsui who chose to name his business in a way that clearly identified it with himself. Folks in Chapel Hill evidently get a greater sense of comfort from feeling a personal connection with the owner than they do from hokey cultural generalizations.

Three of the more popular Chinese restaurants in and around downtown Chapel Hill are Hunam Chinese, Asia Cafe and 35 Chinese. A significant bond that these businesses all share is names that don't play on basic American stereotypes about the Far East. Another characteristic they all share is pretty good food.

This phenomenon is by no means restricted to Chinese restaurants. For instance, I will never go to an Indian restaurant that makes any reference to the Taj Mahal, elephants or Bombay. Especially since Bombay is not even Bombay anymore - it is now Mumbai.

It's a good thing there are few Australian restaurants in the United States. I can only imagine the Koala Aborigine or the Kangaroo Opera House. It sounds ridiculous, but if the same naming patterns given to most Chinese restaurants were used, that's about how it would turn out. The only reason their names don't sound absurd to the average American is that they're so used to that just being how it is.

If this trend continued, an African restaurant probably would be called Zulu Safari. If we started eating Saudi Arabian food we could go to the Oil Desert. I shudder at the thought of getting some German food at the Oktoberfest Autobahn or picking up some British grub at the Union Jack Tower of London.

I'm doing my part to solve this problem. Since 2004 I have not gone to any Chinese restaurant whose name contained one of the magic words I outlined earlier. Probably not coincidentally, I've noticed that the food at the places I've been to in the last few years is a lot better than it is at all the Panda, Dragon and Garden establishments I've been to in the past. I think there's a directly proportional relationship between stereotypical names and bad food.

So as you travel Orange and Chatham counties and the world beyond, I hope you'll start paying more attention to the names of the places where you decide to eat. If you avoid the rote names, you will not only be taking a stand for cultural sensitivity but also more than likely getting a better meal.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.



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