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Secrets of 10 San Francisco Restaurant Names

What a visit to China, a cactus and two rickety old buses have to do with restaurants across the city
January 11, 2016
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by Trevor Felch

San Franciscans know all about the importance of a first impression. Before an elevator pitch or even a handshake, the name always comes first. Restaurants are no different. Like the menu and the atmosphere, a restaurant's name is a pivotal part of the dining experience. Some SF restaurant names have fascinating stories, others are abstract and wildly bizarre. Here are 10 you'll certainly remember for the food and the names.

Chapeau!

Opened in 1996 in the Inner Richmond, Chapeau! has one of the few traditional French menus left in the city (we’re talking about escargots, cassoulet and lots of baguette). It's also gotta be one of a handful of the city's restaurants with an exclamation point in the name. “Chapeau” in French means “hat,” and chef-owner Philippe Gardelle always used to wear hats; so why not name a restaurant after his love of hats? But, it is also a French phrase for “Wow!” You can pick the meaning you prefer, hats or enthusiasm, while sipping a Calvados trou Normand.

126 Clement St.; 415-387-0408

Fat Angel

Contrary to popular belief, the Fillmore gastropub’s name is not a nod to happy and full beer bellies. Instead, the name stems from a hand-pulled noodle shop planned by Cyrick Hia and Jason Kirmse, which never happened due to immigration issues. Hia, who visited China yearly, wanted to bring back a noodle master from the town of Taishan to open a place in SF. As Kirmse says, “After three trips, an immigration attorney, and a really bad visa interview,” the chef was denied entry, and there was no noodle shop. But while in China, Hia had seen a giant crane taking down a sign that said “fat angel” in Chinese characters. Today's Fat Angel is known not for noodles but for beer, wine and thoughtful comfort food.

1740 O’Farrell St.; 415-525-3013

Goood Frikin’ Chicken

Call it GFC for short since it’s hard to remember the exact spelling of this Outer Mission Middle Eastern restaurant's name. The spot is best known for its roast chicken with garlic sauce, and in testing the signature recipe prior to the restaurant’s 2005 opening, founder Nabeel Yousef couldn’t help but be astonished by how good the chicken really was. His exuberance is reflected in the name. And, yes, that extra “o” is on purpose. Note that chicken is by no means the only item worth trying (we’re looking at you, lamb shawarma). If the name seems made for social media attention, remember that 11 years ago, that couldn’t have been the case. The restaurant was and still is about the chicken.

10 29th St.; 415-970-9428

Lazy Bear

The Mission’s dinner-party-style, prix fixe and tickets-only destination seems like it must have been a reference to an adorable and tired bear, or maybe a Stanford fan/chef poking fun at Cal? Both are false. The moniker is a riff on chef-owner David Barzelay’s last name. It started when his wife saw him sound asleep and called him "lazy." The similarity to his own name stuck with the chef, and from there, it wasn't much of a stretch to combine “bear” with “lazy” to get “Barzelay.” It seemed like the perfect fit for his beloved underground dinner series and, later, for the restaurant itself.

3416 Mission St.; 415-874-9921

Liholiho Yacht Club

Located in the landlocked TenderNob, the LYC experience takes place on land with no boats in sight, but the name springs from chef Ravi Kapur’s youth growing up on Oahu in Hawaii. There, one of Kapur’s uncles told him about party “pop-ups” he and his brothers would throw on the beach with good times, ice-cold beer and food on the grill. The brothers asked visitors to pay a small fee to cover expenses, plus a little extra cash for their efforts. The brothers called it “Liholiho Yacht Club” after the street on which they lived. Kapur, who ran a pop-up series after serving as Prospect’s chef de cuisine, says he used the name for his year-old restaurant to honor his uncles, whose own parties were thrown “to allow you to keep doing what you love.”

871 Sutter St.; 415-440-5446

The Little Chihuahua

The burritos here may not but small, but the original Divisadero location of the taqueria (there are now  three Little Chihuahuas around San Francisco) is diminutive, or Chihuahua-size. Owner Andrew Johnstone opened the restaurant, known for unique dishes like a fried plantain burrito, way back in 2007. You might be wondering if the Chihuahua from the Taco Bell commercials was involved? Nope, that rage a decade before the first TLC opened had nothing to do with the name, Johnstone says.

292 Divisadero St.; 415-255-8225

Mr. Tipple's Recording Studio

Mr. Tipple is not a real person — except, perhaps, in the imagination of owner Jay Bordeleau (Maven, Cadence). Bordeleau is a trained musician (he plays the marimba!) and he spent most of his career in the restaurant and bar industry (how many marimba players are also certified sommeliers?). Cocktails and jazz are at the heart of Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, and given the background of the owner himself, Mr. Tipple seems like the suave man-about-town who would love some Dixeland jazz with his tipple of choice after work. Or, as many have suggested, perhaps Mr. Tipple is the alter ego of Bordeleau himself. It is truly the Mid-Market mystery. Photo: Michael David Rose

39 Fell St.; no phone

Nopalito

Much like the aforementioned “Chapeau!,” Nopalito has two name inspirations. The first has to do with geography. Nopalito is owned by Nopa’s co-owners Jeff Hanak, Allyson Jossel and Laurence Jossel, and they named Nopa for the North of the Panhandle neighborhood, called NoPa, in which it's located. Nopalito’s first location is two blocks from Nopa in NoPa. Got it? The second is a reference to an ingredient, nopal (a cactus), in chef Gonzalo Guzman’s excellent Mexican cooking (it's one of Zagat’s highest-ranked Mexican restaurants in San Francisco). It almost seems like fate that the neighborhood and an important ingredient align so closely. There's also a second Nopalito branch in the Inner Sunset, and at both spots, diners can't get enough of Guzman's carnitas and pozole.

306 Broderick St.; 415-437-0303

Old Bus Tavern

Although not parked on the premises, there is a namesake pair of 1970s-era Volkswagen buses behind the name and spirit of this trail-blazing gastropub/brewhouse/cocktail bar in Bernal Heights. Indeed, co-owner John Zirinsky once drove around the country in one of them, a 1978 Westfalia bus, and it's still his ride in a city where the Tesla and Prius reign supreme. The owners have also recently restored a 1971 bus to be used for farmer's market trips and beer festivals. San Francisco doesn't have many old buses driving around outside of Haight-Ashbury, so, if you spot one driving around, it's likely one of Old Bus Tavern's old buses.

3193 Mission St.; 415-843-1938

Spaghetti Brothers

No, there are no brothers involved in this new Marina Italian hit. And the name is not a nod to the fraternity brothers who are said to make up the neighborhood's bar scene (commonly known as “Marina bros”). Chef-owners Erik Lowe and Aaron Toensing picked the name to evoked a red-sauce joint and to represent the fun side of the restaurant's food and atmosphere. With the early praise for the bar program, maybe a Negroni sibling is in the works?

3213 Scott St.; 415-400-8500

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