An Irishman's Diary
IT WAS a time of the signs, perhaps. But within the space of an hour earlier this week, I received the two photographs displayed here in separate reader e-mails.
One is of a Chinese takeaway in Bray, which I think speaks for itself, and with admirable candour too. As John Byrne – who sent in – suggests, it could be a sign of things to come.
With menu health warnings on the way, and recent research suggesting that a typical Chinese meal can have as many as 2,000 calories, the one pictured seems to be (in John’s words) “ahead of the curve, so to speak” in customer education.
There is, by contrast, nothing funny about the signs for Bewley’s cafe in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, pictures of which were sent in by An Taisce spokesman Kevin Duff.
And it’s even less funny to learn, as I did from his e-mail, that the company is applying to the city council for permission to take the signs down. Or up, in the case of the one set in mosaic tiles under your feet as you enter.
Readers may recall that the actual Bewley’s on this site closed several years ago. But earlier this year the premises reopened, with a Starbucks at the front and a TGI Friday’s at the back.
Which (retaining as they had to the protected facade, including signage), seemed a happy enough compromise. Except that now, Bewley’s wants to remove all traces of its name from the facade.
And all right, I can see how in these days when branding is an obsession, there may be some public confusion about what exactly the new business is. God forbid that a passing tourist might not immediately realise that the premises has become yet another step in Starbucks’ march to world domination.
But dammit, the branding of Dublin must count for something too. And whether Bewley’s like it or not, those signs are part of the city’s personality. You can visit Rome and and see mosaic floors that haven’t changed in 2,000 years. Protecting one that’s barely a century old shouldn’t be beyond us.
“STARBUCKS”, BY THE WAY,is an example of the caution normally advisable when naming a food and drink business. It is, as fans of Herman Melville will know, taken from the name of a character in Moby Dick.
But the chain’s founders originally intended calling it after the ship in that novel, the Pequod (pronounced “pee-quod”). Then they had an alarming thought, viz: “no-one’s going to drink a cup of pee-quod”.
So they opted instead for the name of the ship’s first mate: the man who tried to talk Captain Ahab out of his doomed vendetta against the whale. And there was a small piece of serendipity in this for the cafe chain’s future connection with Dublin.
The fictional Starbuck was a Quaker. As such, he was named after a real-life family, also Quakers, in the Nantucket of Melville’s era. So maybe Starbucks and Bewley’s were fated to have a strategic alliance, eventually.
Of course, even carefully chosen names can run into problems when transported to other cultures and languages. Hence the many internet sites featuring what seem to English speakers hilariously inappropriate restaurant signs.
Asia is particularly rich in such misunderstandings, and many a backpacker’s evening has been made by a meal in a place called, in all innocence, “Mi Dung” or “Yu Kee”.
You would wonder, though, when such names appear in Anglophone countries. A restaurant called the “Pu Pu Hot Pot” in Massachusetts may be innocent enough. But one called “Hung Far Low” in Oregon, would seem to be stretching it (in more ways that one).
And even if it is an authentic Vietnamese noodle bar in London, I can’t believe that the people behind a place called “Phat Phuc” didn’t know what they were doing.
Bewley’s has something in common with all the aforementioned. It is, according to its subtitle, an “oriental cafe”. But perhaps wisely, it limited its eastern influence to the decor and choice of teas, while retaining the old French family name, which means “beautiful place” (all the more reason why Dublin City should fight to keep it).
As for Soon Fatt, it too is arguably a national treasure, if only for guaranteeing Ireland a place in world’s-funniest- restaurant-name lists. Indeed, in cultures where obesity is not a problem, the sign mightn’t even be funny at all. Its implied warning might seem more like a promise.
But then again, it is in Ireland. So if the proprietors ever feel the need to take the sign down, I doubt An Taisce would object.