We are living in the & of times. Nearly every new restaurant that opens, it seems, has an ampersand stuck in the middle of its name like a big brass belt buckle boasting of something. But of what?
In the past year alone, New York restaurants and bars like Parker & Quinn, Boulton & Watt, Grape & Vine, Pearl & Ash, Rogue & Canon, Hill & Dale, and Runner & Stone have opened their doors, ushering in the new age of the ampersand. That graceful glyph, of course, is not a new symbol: Ironically perhaps—for a city whose best restaurant is still Thomas Keller’s Per Se—the ampersand was born from slurring together of the words and per se and, which was in the 19th century a rote phrase amended to the end of the alphabet in British elementary schools. All restaurant roads lead back to Keller. (The symbol itself, a ligature of the letters e and t, Latin for and, dates from the first century A.D.)
The ampersand has long been a favorite for the foodie typographic set. In the 1930s, a circle of printing hounds would meet at Burtry’s French Restaurant on West 50th to wax poetic about all things typography as it pertained to their work. They called themselves the Biblio-Beef-Eaters and later, aptly, the Typophiles. In 1936, they published a private press book about the ampersand entitled “Diggings from Many Ampersandhogs.” The group, with new members, still meets for lunch. Robert Warner, master printer for old-century-style print shop Bowne & Co. Stationers (founded in 1775) in the South Street Seaport Museum, still swoons for the symbol. “I enjoy the ampersand, yes,” he said recently, “it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.”
But the recent ampersanding trend, I think, has more to do with what the symbol became during the late 19th and early 20th century in New York—that golden if fuzzily remembered age that so many restaurants these days seem to be attempting to ape. It was, so the lore goes, the age of the handmade and bespoke. These were the heritage halcyon days when fathers and sons would labor over the cobbler’s bench, the blacksmith’s anvil, the tailor’s desk. (That’s all fine and dandy. Just don’t mention the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.)
“Having an ampersand in your name,” as Phillip Baltz, president of restaurant PR firm Baltz & Co, recently explained, “associates you with artisanal, bespoke, handcrafted movement.” This, of course, has restaurateurs flocking to establishments like Parker & Quinn, the Refinery Hotel restaurant with “design touches spanning from New York of the 1920s to today ” and a menu featuring rotisserie chicken “from the coop” and heirloom pork chop “from the pen.” Parker and Quinn, incidentally, are fictional characters. Similarly without actual named proprietors is Boulton & Watt, a brick-heavy gastrobar on the Lower East Side named after the Matthew Boulton and James Watt, developers of the steam engine, that opened in January; Rogue & Canon—named after I know not what—another industrial-flecked mixology bar in the East Village opened in February; and Hill & Dale, an ornate gastrolounge named after an early form of sound recording. The special drink there is a Dot & Dash, a peach and prosecco jello shot, rolled lightly in chili lime zest.
Even Pearl & Ash, one of New York’s most exciting new restaurants, isn’t named after Mr. Pearl and Mr. Ash. Instead, chef Richard Kuo, formerly of Frej, and Patrick Cappiello, former sommelier of Gilt, named it after two diametrically opposed opposites: smooth precious pearls and sooty discard ash.
In fact, the only common theme amongst any of the ampersand hotspots is that none of them actually have the owners’ last names in the title of the establishment. That is to say, it’s only the ampersand that brings them together.
Photos: Courtesy of Pearl & Ash; Boulton & Watt; Grape & Vine