Why Do Restaurants Love Puns?
Food puns are pervasive, polarizing, and—sometimes?—maybe even funny
We live in a world divided between people who love puns and people who hate them. One one side are those of us who see a too-cute, “hilariously rendered” menu offering (aka “Moons Over My Hammy”) and groan and refuse to play along—we’ll point while ordering so we don’t have to actually say it, or convert it to something more innocuous, like “that egg sandwich thingamajig with ham.” On the other side are those who say it loud and proud, with relish (especially if said item is pickle-based). It’s not advised that these two types of people commingle in dining spaces, though often they’re family members, and occasionally romantic partners. (Sex puns are a whole ‘nother story.)
It’s not just menu offerings but also restaurant names where food puns run amok. The website Eater, for example, has a bad restaurant name bracket that a friend pointed me to while I was researching this piece—the winning horribly named restaurant from the 2017 competition was Blunch, a reprehensible portmanteau of breakfast and lunch and also the sound your stomach makes when reading that word. Whether you’re blunching or ordering the Eggs Benedict Arnold (a dish I just made up that includes dashes of treason, some hamming it up, and plenty of Hollandaise sauce), customers must decide if they’re going to play along—or flee, immediately.
Puns, of course, are everywhere, as Joe Berkowitz, author of the book Away With Words, tells me: “Start looking closely and you'll see puns on just about every type of sign, song, ad, and TV show.” Like every other marketer out there, the purveyors of puns are trying to get your attention. “The purpose of puns in any type of branding situation … is to jazz the product up and make it memorable,” he explains. “It'll either be corny and everyone will hate it or it will be quietly clever and everyone will just pretend to hate it. Puns say ‘We put some thought into this,’ though. Puns say, ‘We tried!’"
And so it goes with what we eat. An exhausting but not exhaustive list of food and restaurant puns: Baguetteaboudit!, a “Paris-meets-Brooklyn” sandwich place in NYC that—alas—closed a while back. A San Francisco-based juice bar named Happy Moose that features drinks like “Kale Earnheart,” “Beet It,” and “Chard Knock Life.” An Alabama bakery called Nothing Bundt Cakes. Philly’s Pandora’s Lunch Box, “an excellent resto in Montreal called Eggspectations,” Happy Tummy in Alabama, which avoids punnery in its name (unless I’m missing something) but offers sandwiches ranging from “Don’t Cry for Me Argen-Tuna” to “Leave Me Provolone.” In Nashville, there’s a hot dog stand called I Dream of Weenie, which offers a “Frank & to the Point” dog. Mall standard Outback Steakhouse serves Aussie-tizers instead of Appetizers (dear lord).
Food puns feel personal, almost an invasion. Why take our turkey sandwich, perfectly lovely on its own, and try to make it something clever? It’s obnoxious, you might say, this attempt to wrestle our staple sustenance from our grips and turn it into something with bells and whistles. The show The Good Place served up so many restaurant puns you might feel a little bit nauseated, which is kinda the point: Knish from a Rose is just the Tip of the Iceberg Lettuce, you know, in hell.
But like I said, the world is divided on this matter. Blame it on Bob’s Burgers, which made punning about food just a little more cool (I could go for a Summer Thyme burger right about now). Certain pals, if I can call them that, even harbor their own dream restaurant puns, kind of like claiming a baby name for the future. “I love them and they're everything that's right with this world,” one person told me of puns, not babies. “I even want to open up my own Mexican restaurant/bar and call it 2 for Juans.” Adds another, “I am extremely in favor. Also I have a long-running fantasy of opening up a psychoanalysis cafe where I serve dishes like ‘scrambled egos and toast’ or ‘Freud chicken.’" I admit, I once suggested to a friend that we open a yoga studio/coffeeshop called Om Lattes but I promise I was kidding, and I’m not even entirely sure that’s a pun.
“I love all puns,” another friend admitted. “I am, however, too cool to actually say them when ordering. For example, instead of ordering ‘Hey That Paella’ at The Island Cow, I just ordered paella. The paella was terrible, but the menu's funny in places.” Funny = “Mooo-zzarella Sticks,” “Shrimply Great!” and something called “Be Crabby,” which isn’t really a pun but we’re sure is “Udderly delicious.”
Be assured, for every pun lover there’s a deep and mistrustful hater of those kinds of names. “HATE HATE HATE HATE,” one friend told me. “There's a restaurant near me called J'eatjet, i.e. ‘Did you eat yet?’ It might only be pun-adjacent, but I cannot bear to look into the window of that place and read the sign one more time!” And then there are the selective moralists of the crowd, the people who like puns based on QUALITY. Which of course really depends on you and the pun. Berkowitz says, “It has to be at least a little clever and also pertinent. A coffee place called Sconehenge is dumb because what's the connection to one of the seven wonders of the world? If I'm at an Indian restaurant, though, and someone calls the task of deciding whether to get bread a naan-issue, I will golf clap.”
Quoted in a piece in The Atlantic, John Pollack, a communications consultant and author of The Pun Also Rises (oh, man) explains that pun aversion can also be a linguistic control issue: “Puns are threatening because puns reveal the arbitrariness of meaning, and the layers of nuance that can be packed onto a single word,” he says. “So people who dislike puns tend to be people who seek a level of control that doesn’t exist. If you have an approach to the world that is rules-based, driven by hierarchy and threatened by irreverence, then you’re not going to like puns.”
There is that extra something, I suppose, that comes with a menu or restaurant name that’s working hard to make you laugh, sort of like when your dentist appears to be an aspiring comedian. You might appreciate the effort, but not the result. Then again, you never asked for your food to deliver the funnies. And maybe that’s why those of us who take ourselves seriously (Or, um, have teeny tiny control issues? Or don’t like having to laugh at subpar jokes?) tend to kind of not like puns so much. Our reaction to them feels as rote as the puns themselves: they elicit a groan, a wince, a shrug, a “puhlease.” As a person who has combined all four of those reactions while reacting to a single pun, well, I think it’s due to a sort of mortification with regard to the observed exertion, a shame in how much someone has tried, and an irritation at having to smile when you just want to eat some lunch. Not to mention, those puns make you complicit in trying, too! If you’re not really a joiner, you don’t want to be forced to go along with someone else’s fun.
But I can see the point on the other side, all those glimmering puns in the distance, the puntentional. (No.) Am I just being a killjoy? If something makes you—or anyone—laugh, doesn’t it come with some sort of value? “I don't think I'd ever be more likely to consciously order something because it had a pun title,” says Berkowitz, “but the title may draw my attention to it (perhaps by incurring my wrath) more than other dishes, and maybe THAT makes me more likely to order it.” So it might work either way, ugh, the marketers win! “Moons Over My Hammy is a classic. It's so dumb and cute, you can't be mad at it,” he adds. “Then there are puns like frappuccino, where you just forget it's a pun. (Technically, it's a portmanteau but portmanteaus are puns.) So many places have 'egg' in a pun like eggcellent that you barely notice that after a while either.”
And if someone’s pun is bad, well, you can do them one better and create your own. “A personal favorite food pun is the phrase Guac the Casbah,” admits Berkowitz, “because that's what I named my annual guacamole-and-margarita crawl. A more fun example, though, is the late Harris Wittels' joke: “I want to open a Irish, Jamaican, small plates brunch restaurant and call it Tapas the Morning to Jah.”
The more I think about it, the more I both fear and admire the pun. The linguistic trick has been around forever — they go back to ancient Egypt; they’re in the Bible and Romeo and Juliet! And, much like a Dad joke, of which they’re a variety, they link older and younger generations, carrying us through changing traditions and times, even if we’re all just groaning. Look, there’s comfort in the corny. And maybe it’s that I’m getting old, too, but who doesn’t appreciate that kind of continuity in a world full of change? You’re not the first person to wince over Moons Over My Hammy, and you won’t be the last. “The first time I remember seeing food puns was on the DB Kaplan’s menu in Minneapolis, in the ‘80s,” a friend tells me. “I still laugh when they're on menus.” I took a look: The Breadless Horseman! Fowl Play! Lox, Stock and Barrel. The Italian Scallion. Alfalfa Omega! There’s even something called Dick Caviar and I’m not sure what that’s a pun on (Dick Cavett?) but, um, you have to admit, like ‘em or not, there’s something to these puns.
In the end, maybe there’s a certain safety in a kind of satiation that incorporates wordplay. There are limits, of course, but as another friend points out, “As long as the pupu platter is never really a pun, I'm fine with puns.”
That’s probably the best way to eat.