Behind the Bar

What’s In a (Bar) Name?

The exterior of a bar door and overhang.
When choosing a name for your bar, it's important that it is meaningful and authentic. Employees Only faced opposition over its name to begin with, but ultimately, it was pertinent to setting the tone of the bar. (Photo: Emilie Baltz)

When Dave Kaplan and his partners opened Death & Co on New Year’s Eve, 2006, they were a little nervous about the name. “It was bold, and we were more scared than excited about that,” says Kaplan. “In the early days, when we would call to set up vendor accounts and they're like ‘I'm sorry?’ I'm like ‘D-E-A-T-H.’ They're like ‘you named your bar death?’ I remember particularly this one woman was like ‘Welp, good luck with that.’”

The idea for the name came from a decoupaged glass plate, a gift from Kaplan’s ex-girlfriend. “It illustrated the Devil's toboggan ride and underneath, in between the wood slats that held up this rickety looking toboggan slide it had hotels and ice cream shops and bars and gambling and doggery and then it all ends in this pit of death. This is where I got two names, it says Death & Co., Proprietors. Names really can come from anywhere, and you have to be aware of it because none of these names, or words, or combination of words are particularly unique, but still no one really strikes upon them and creates them into something unless you're aware of it.”

The plate kicked off an idea for an entire concept which set Kaplan off on a research trail. “It was once thought, back in the day, that to live a life with alcohol is to live a life really shadowed by death,” he says. “You have death on your shoulders or you're walking with death, all these pre-prohibition propaganda notions. We kind of tipped our hat to it, smiled and said ‘Long gone are the days where that's the case.’ To the teetotalers we tip our hat, to those who welcome the night and enjoy a drink we offer a warm embrace and come on inside. So that was kind of the Death & Co ethos, and the ethos was almost born out of accepting this name.”

Death & Co wasn’t the only bar to face opposition to its name. “When we opened we were voted worst name for a place in Time Out New York,” says Billy Gilroy, co-founder of Employees Only. “When I told my brother, he just looked at me like: ‘Are you out of your mind? Why would you name a place Employees Only?’ It was a leap of faith. For the first year we had to explain that it was almost a triple entendre. When you say Employees Only it's because it's a speakeasy and it's supposed to be just a service entrance, it's supposed to only be for people who know about it, but then also all five of us [original founders] were employees in the industry for many many years, so the basis of the concept was all based around the service industry it was people that were in the business for years that were doing a place for people in the business and so when people would say: ‘Why Employees Only?’ it's also because it's owned by employees to serve employees.”

Obviously, these names didn’t stop these bars from becoming successful. “When approaching the bar name really it's not stupid if it works,” says Scott Baird, owner of Trick Dog and founding partner of the Bon Vivants. “But it's also: keep it simple, stupid, and if you're using an ampersand it better be for a really good reason.” Kaplan has similar advice. “In my opinion, names typically have to be fairly easy to say, they have to have kind of a nice cadence, they have to flow and they have to look nice,” he says. “Aesthetically, when you write it out, even if a word sounds nice it doesn't always translate to the page or to the graphic identity.”

While some bars come up with the name early in the process, for others, it doesn’t come into place until later. “We wrote the whole business plan and then Josh [Harris, owner of Trick Dog and co-founder of the Bon Vivants] realized that he had had this little cast iron bank, a replica from the 18th century, that is a clown with a hoop and a dog and it says ‘trick dog’ on the front,” says Baird. “The bar that we had designed fit the color scheme, and they suited one another, they’re both tough, they're both whimsical.”

For Baird, naming a bar is all about giving potential guests a sense of what they’re getting into. “It's your first interaction, right? I hear the name of the bar, then I have an idea of what the bar is,” he says. “Names should give you some sense of the story or the narrative of the space you're walking into, that seems like a very obvious thing but sometimes you can be really misled.”

Although you might go through similar processes, each bar you name is going to be a different experience, depending heavily on the personality of the bar concept. Gilroy had been thinking about the concept for Macao Trading Company since before Employee’s Only, but was waiting for the right space. The name was organically born out the concept of a gaming parlor, brothel and opium den all rolled into one, paying homage to Macao in the 1930s. When Kaplan named The Walker Inn, he used the last name of one of the architects who designed the building and called it an inn to suggest an intimate space, and the rooms available above for overnight stays. Even though that name was fairly straightforward, he wanted it to flow off the tongue, and mean a little something deeper. “The Walker Inn also has kind of this double entendre cadence, to ‘walk her in,’ so it sounds really nice when you say it out loud.”

While there are many ways to name a bar, there are some tried and true ways to go about it. Baird recommends starting with a look at a list of top bars to figure out what type of naming convention you gravitate toward. “Those styles of names usually gives you a sense as to what the bar is going to be, so figure out what it is you are and what kind of name you fit into,” he says. “You can't know the name of your bar if you don't know the ethos of your bar.”

You might start a mood board, or sit down for a chat with friends or partners to start the naming process, but don’t put it off. “Definitely give yourself enough time,” says Gilroy. “I've been in this situation where [I’m] two weeks away from opening and still don't have a name. Then you wind up maybe picking something that you're not particularly crazy about.”

Baird recommends letting yourself think of names that might sound ridiculous or over the top. “Then figure out why you enjoyed that. Why did that make you laugh? Why did that work for you? Why did that come out of you? Then work from that point until you can figure out ‘That's what I was seeing in that,’ ‘That's why I enjoyed that,’ ‘That's where the name lives, and then you'll find it.”

While he believes that naming should be approached with thought and care, Kaplan doesn’t think they are necessarily integral to the success of a bar. “I think what you'll find in the music industry and in band naming conventions, or lack thereof, can also be true for bars. You think of Minus the Bear, you don’t think: ‘subtraction the large mammal’ you think of their music. I think names are far more forgiving than we think they are, but if you have the foresight to create something that you really do want to become a brand, well, I think you're probably an idiot or just an ego maniac. I had no clue Death & Co was going to be anything whatsoever. I was 24 when we opened that bar, we had no idea what we were doing, but we were lucky in that the name is and was thoughtful.”

For Baird, authenticity and patience are paramount. “It needs to be honest and true to you, and it needs to have a lot of point of view and perspective,” he says. Of course, that can take time. “The name is going to come. Don't rush it. Just trust yourself, trust the process, the name will arrive.”

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink for online and print publications. She’s always up for a conversation about cocktail history, preferably over a Corpse Reviver #2.

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