Weighing in: What’s in a name? For Lake Wylie’s newest restaurant, I’m not sure

Photo by: Alex Cason Photography (www.alexcasonphotography.com)
Photo by: Alex Cason Photography (www.alexcasonphotography.com)

So, let’s call the message a little bit mixed. When the Charlotte-based Bottle Cap Group announced the name of its latest restaurant, Papa Doc’s Shore Club, I had to pause and consider where they were going with that:

A carefree spot to knock back some beers on an afternoon by a lake? Or an unfortunate reminder of the ruthless dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti with fear and a murderous police squad?

Ah, restaurant names. After all the work to find a location, develop a menu and figure out your audience, you still have to come up with a name that says . . . something. And you have to make sure what it’s saying is what you intended.

Bottle Cap Group owner Britton McCorkle wasn’t available for an interview Thursday afternoon, according to marketing director Morgan Conroy. Responding to an email, Conroy said McCorkle chose the name because it had ties to his family. His stepfather, Tom Wicker, owned a bar named Papa Doc’s on South Boulevard in 1972.

“Britton reminisces about his childhood and the success of his stepfather’s career in the restaurant industry to seek out new ideas for his concepts. The name Papa Doc’s is about family to him.”

When the name was announced, a few people reacted on the social-media site Twitter the same way I did, wondering why a restaurant would link itself to terrible history.

History note: If you’ve been around Charlotte long enough, you also might remember a barbecue restaurant in the 1980s named Papa Doc’s Pig Palace. It wasn’t related to Wicker’s bar. But when I moved here in 1985 from Florida, where I knew Haitian immigrants who had risked their lives to flee the regime of Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the big sign on that barbecue restaurant on 2nd Street did make me wince.

The name of Papa Doc’s Shore Club also brought a wince from nationally known restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. When I called him to ask about what should — and shouldn’t — go into a restaurant name, he laughed, and then admitted it might have been a bad choice.

“It makes me crack up, and it makes me sad and afraid to go there,” he said. “Because I’m afraid they’re going to shoot me. Is that smart in an open-carry state?”

Wolf says he tells his clients there’s one rule in naming a restaurant.

“Only one rule: Don’t stick your chin out. Don’t choose a name that a cranky headline writer can use to devastate you.”

His example: A restaurant in San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid Center that was named Vertigo. The headline on a review: “Vertigo . . . Somewhere Else.”

“Get a mean friend and see if they can riff on your name to make you feel bad. If they can, choose another name. And you have to ask more than one person. There are various expressions that might be great to you but might be rude (in another culture).”

Bottle Cap Group owns more than a dozen restaurants in Charlotte and Greenville, including Ink & Ivy, Brazwell’s Neighborhood Pub and Rosemont. It isn’t the first time the restaurant group has done something that seems a little tone-deaf to me: When it opened Hot Taco in South End, the decor included a life-size statue right by the front door of a sleeping, gray-haired man wearing a sombrero. Every time I see it, I wonder: What were they thinking?

When Bottle Cap opened Wu’s Cajun Seafood in Dilworth, I looked at the design, all dark red and gold, and wondered if they were intentionally going for “New Orleans opium den,” or if they had just watched too many Charlie Chan movies. (After watching the HBO series “Deadwood,” which included a character named Wu who disposed of bodies by tossing them in a pig pen, I felt a little queasy about that, too..)

Of course, restaurants sometimes deliberately pick names that are intended to offend, for the notoriety or to signal the kind of crowd they’re after. Wolf offered the example of a restaurant in Las Vegas called The Pink Taco. It worked . . . as long as it stayed in Vegas.

“You have to make the choice,” he said. “Have you heard of Hooters?”

Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis has more than 25 years of experience in writing about food., cooking and Southern food culture. She also covers restaurant news (openings, closings, trends and food finds) and she knows where to find the best fried-chicken breakfast in town.