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Hartford Courant

June 10, 2007

Signature Statement

A Successful Nightspot's Identity Owes Much To Its Name

By Jesse Leavenworth

When punk-rock bands became the big draw at CBGB & OMFUG in the 1970s, club owner Hilly Kristal could have changed the name.

After all, "Country, Bluegrass, Blues & Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers" - the kind of music Kristal first envisioned for the New York City club - didn't mesh with the Dead Boys, Blondie, Psycho Nurse and other groups that made the place famous.

But "CBGB's" stuck, and naming consultant Steven Manning thinks he knows why.

"If it was called 'Slash,' how interesting is that?" says Manning, head of a San Francisco company called Igor that names businesses and products, including MTV's new digital music service, urge.com.

Manning notes that most patrons didn't know what CBGB & OMFUG stood for - and that was cool.

"It's like the '33' on a Rolling Rock bottle," he says. "I think you need something a little off, something that's not linear and obvious, but something that has a little mystery to it. People want a mystery. They want to lean forward. If you can get them to stop and say 'What's that all about?' - they'll remember it."

The effort to capture a club's essence and draw paying customers is evident in the signs that rise and fall from building facades and plate-glass windows in Hartford and other communities throughout the state.

The Meriden nightspot recently reincarnated as Mambo's, for example, has been through six name changes in the past decade - from The Vault to Club Xstasy, back to The Vault, then Club Impulz and Essence Lounge.

"Every couple of years, a nightclub needs to make a decision when its books start going down - change the atmosphere, change the name," building owner Robert Mesite says.

The Meriden club's name shifted with changes in ownership and styles of music, Mesite says. The Vault was a natural because the place used to be a bank, he says. But the Top 40 format wore out after a while, and it was time to try something else. He didn't really like the drug connection to the subsequent name, Club Xstacy, Mesite says, but the idea was that people "would get a euphoric high by coming to the club."

That version of the Colony Street club failed after only a few months. New owners came in and liked the original name, but the second Vault eventually was replaced by the hip-hop and Latino themes of Club Impulz. The place was briefly Essence Lounge and now Mambo's, which is offering salsa music and targeting an upscale crowd, Mesite says.

Mambo's owner could not be reached for comment, but as the landlord, Mesite says he was adamant about one thing - that the new name not contain the word "club."

"'Club' attracts the wrong type of people, and the cops don't like it either," Mesite says. "Anybody sees the word 'club,' it's fair game. ... People in their 30s, 40s and 50s don't want to go to a 'club' anyway."

Perfect Fits

Some names are simple fits. Room 960 in Hartford, for instance, is in the old G. Fox building at 960 Main St. Anything with an "O" says "Irish bar," and no one wonders about the main draw at a place called Hooters.

Next come original names meant to convey the spirit and spice of music, food and atmosphere at various combinations of bar, music club and restaurant. James Varano, owner of Black-eyed Sally's on Asylum Street in Hartford, says the name was born after he and friends attended a barbecue cook-off in Memphis about 12 years ago. After a night of music and drinking, Varano says, the hung-over group had breakfast at a greasy spoon next to their hotel. They got a kick out of their waitress, a big gal named Sally who kept offering the table chops, bacon and other varieties of Southern breakfast pork.

Back in Connecticut and seeking a name for his planned Southern restaurant and blues club, Varano and his associates envisioned "an image of Mom stirring up the gumbo." Then they remembered Sally from Memphis, and the name became "Sally's."

But it was missing something, a sense of the black-and-blue of the blues, perhaps. Someone, according to Varano, said, "Why don't we give it a black eye?" - and there it was.

The Hungry Tiger, a Manchester music club and restaurant, also has a woman behind the name. Owner Donald Denley Jr. grew up in a restaurant family. His dad started with a soda shop in the city's North End and subsequently owned the Kopper Kettle and the Brass Key restaurants in Manchester. Mildred Denley, wife and mother, had named all the family businesses, so in 1982, when Donald Jr. was opening his own place, Mildred Denley thought of how hungry her husband and three sons always were and also about a college girlfriend of Donald Jr.'s who called him "Tiger."

Some owners have gone with no name at all. BAR in New Haven, which opened in 1991, was built on a concept "less pretentious and formal than other clubs of the day, thus its simplistic name," according to the business's website, www.barnightclub.com. BAR is for all types, according to the site, "from pierced faces to briefcases, amplifiers to pacifiers."

Asked how patrons refer to the place, manager Frank Patrick says there were a few jokes when it opened - "BAR? What bar?" - but after 16 years, "everybody knows who we are."

Hartford also had a nameless bar, called "the bar with no name" at Asylum and Trumbull streets. In fact, owner Aldo Pugliares was emphatic that the place would have no name, according to a 1995 Courant story.

"It's not The No-Name Bar," Pugliares was quoted as saying. "It's the bar with no name."

There is a name on the place now ("Trust"), but the owners could not be reached for comment.

Soliciting Suggestions

Some club owners look for name advice online. The website www.wordlab.com offers a forum for entrepreneurs seeking monikers for everything from hot-dog carts to big-city nightclubs.

"I am opening a new club in Ohio, and I can't come up with a catchy name. ... It will be mostly Top 40 dance music with some older stuff thrown in, and of course requests! Can you help?" a seeker with the Web handle TamaraLynn wrote.

Responses included "Shut Up And Dance," "Galaxy Club" and "Frequency."

Sixtoemoe wanted a name for a club focused on soul music. Responses included "Soul Survivor," "Bought and Souled," "Souled Out" and "Soul Beneficiary."

Posters on the site have to weed through some attempted humor. To a person seeking a name for a restaurant and bar in Portland, Maine's art district, for example, a responder offered "Chez Snooty." Another regular on the site has repeatedly offered "Alcohol & Archery" as a name for a variety of clubs and bars.

Some people do get solutions from the site. The owner of a small bar near a cemetery in Portland, Ore., was offered "The Dead End," "Dead Zone," "Plotz" and "Spirits," among other names. The owner wrote back, "Thanks, we went with Spirits! Great idea."

Several responders urged owners and managers seeking names to keep them simple. A poster with the web handle Intellishag sought suggestions for a martini bar that would play "chill-out and sexy music" for "sexy young people."

A poster with the forum name, Elemental, responded, "Think 'short and sweet,' " and suggested several signposts, including "Clean," "Steel," "Chrome," "Velvet" and "Mink."

Logos and illustrations paired with a name add another layer of style and statement. One of Connecticut's best known music spots, Toad's Place in New Haven, uses the image of the well-dressed Victorian Mr. Toad from "Wind in the Willows."

Toad's Place owner Brian Phelps says the name was derived from a restaurant "named after a toad or a frog that matched with the French restaurant theme" the original partners envisioned for the place in 1975. The Mr. Toad logo was added later, Phelps says.

Manning, the naming consultant, cites Toad's Place as a name that stands out amid a crowd of bars and club names that sound like perfume labels.

"There are thousands and thousands of clubs that have edgy, in-your-face names like 'Ecstasy' and 'Opium' - something sexually suggestive," he says. "You actually tend not to notice. That's not pushing the envelope. Something like Toad's is in the other direction. You actually remember it."