Every city has at least a handful of strangely named businesses — it's an inevitable expression of local quirkiness pretty much wherever you go. There are different categories of weird, though, so distinctions must be made. In the Boston area, for instance, there's Newbury Comics which, while it does sell comics, is for the overwhelming majority of adults who shop there actually a record store, an essential influencer of cutting-edge musical tastes. Hence, the name Newbury Comics is misleading. Another example: the Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry, an expensive and acclaimed place to eat, not a place to wash your underpants.
Another type of weird name is exemplified by Terrible Herbst, a Nevada-based gas station/convenience mart chain whose name uses self-effacing irony to great effect, coming across as endearing and, in all likelihood, indicative of high quality. By actually calling themselves “terrible,” they've gotten the service-deficiency question out of the way, addressing it through sarcastic inversion, the same way that “Tiny” is always a huge, strong guy and “Curly” must be bald. Any place calling itself Terrible has gotta be good, and, in fact, Terrible Herbst are bright, clean, well-stocked places to fulfill your convenience store needs.
Some names are merely weird for weirdness sake. For instance, Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, which are found in the South. It's an adorable moniker, almost irresistibly folksy and childlike. Imagine storming into the manager's office in one of those supermarkets as a customer with a serious complaint: “Sir, I am outraged at the product malfeasance and lack of quality service and I have experienced in this… Piggly Wiggly.” It'd be hard not to crack up. That's a great weird name right there, a sort of indemnification from seriousness. However, if you arrived in town and heard the name out of context, you likely wouldn't know it was a supermarket. It sounds like … a toy store? A candy emporium? A diner emphasizing pork? Weird business names are not afraid to have a disconnect between the name and the product or service offered.
Since L.A. is more of an historically aberrant hodgepodge than many other cities, with a freewheeling playfulness resulting from its position, geographically and psychically, on the edge of the continent, you'd think that L.A. business names might out-weird those of other regions. Let's see by taking a look at six of the best.
You gotta respect the balls it takes to zag when everyone else zigs. We here in the Southland — the actual region, not the TNT show — are so used to seeing the name of this ubiquitous strip club chain that we forget how strange and anomalous it is. Strip club names tend toward straightforward word combinations directly referring to hot-bodied young ladies displaying themselves — Girls Girls Girls, The Body Shop, Crazy Girls, Playpen, etc. You've also got a lot of feline imagery in the stripping game: Cheetahs, Jaguars, Pussy Cat, Kittens, etc. But a strip club called Spearmint Rhino? That's a game changer.
Perhaps it's like Terrible Herbst — if a strip club names itself after a giant, hideous mammal capable of trouncing small villages to death, then it pretty much ensures that its ladies will actually be lithe and attractive. Or maybe the name appeals to the subconscious desire of many men to be dominated by a strong, muscular woman with a low, growly snort for a voice. And what's up with “spearmint”? Maybe it's like with cigarettes — add ethnic crossover appeal by mentholating the product. They could do a whole line: Lavender Hippo, Vanilla Wildebeest and, for the hippie crowd, Patchouli Elephant Seal.
The story is much simpler. It turns out that the owner of said clubs had no particular back story or logical meaning in mind when picking out the name, but just wanted something that would stand out and be memorable. Mission accomplished.
The other five we'll examine aren't quite so contrived, so turn the page for more info.
We didn't plan to include two strip clubs on this list, but the name of this one screams out for a mention, as it's strange in a totally different way than Spearmint Rhino.
Like the Rhino, if you just heard the name without context you'd have no way of knowing it was a strip club. It sounds even less strip clubby than the aforementioned competition, because instead of using anthropomorphized animal imagery — a common practice among live nude revues — it is wording culled from the memos of a military branch or law enforcement agency. “Detonation of ordnance in proximity of the hard target seems to be a malfunction. Let's go with Plan B.” It sounds like the name of a business that offers to kill people who won't sign a lucrative real estate deal or agree on an out-of-court settlement, a discount travel agency for people who can't afford Club Med but don't mind wheeling around Tijuana in a bicycle rickshaw and sleeping in a hammock. Probably the most famous Plan B is an oral contraceptive that works just after conception, the “morning after pill,” which is an ironic name for a business whose patrons have a very, very slight chance of actually having sex anytime soon.
Owner Oliver Bendig tells us it's the military association, and not the pharmaceutical one, that he was going for.
At one o'clock in the morning you could go to Denny's, or Plan B. The name worked for so many scenarios. One print ad showed a guy eating takeout and watching Girls Gone Wild, with the caption: 'Or there's Plan B!' The name is so unusual and generic for a club with girls. You want to keep it more seductive and mysterious. It's a name that doesn't tell you anything.
To us, the name Plan B hilariously caters to a self-effacing crowd, as it says, “Hello there, gents, I see that you went out on the town, had a few drinks and tried talking to some ladies. Clearly that goal is an impossibility. May I suggest a last-minute contingency plan providing for an opportunity to be within reasonably close proximity of an unclothed female of the human species?” If nothing else, it's honest.
The name of this West L.A. Japanese restaurant provides an antidote to the stultifying aura of seriousness at places run by iron-fisted sushi chefs. It displays a whimsical and somewhat morbid sense of humor, for it implies that your expert preparer of raw fish has bungled in some huge way, as in “Oops, I just cut off the tip of my finger!”, or “Oops, I accidentally just served you the wrong part of the deadly blowfish — please have this green tea ice cream and lychees, on the house, before you die!” or “Oops, maybe I should have warned you that your sashimi bill was nearing 300 bucks!” As a memorable restaurant name that's unusually self-effacing and oddly endearing, this is pure Grade A filet.
Bee Sumartra, Oops' marketing person, says the name refers to the restaurant's almost-accidental beginnings: “The owners didn't name it Oops! because they didn't have a name, but because they're a group of people who hang out together and all worked at other Japanese restaurants and then they pooled their money and started their own Japanese restaurant.” So, there's that.
This lower Los Feliz wackadoodle emporium specializes in all things colorful, whimsical, far-out, mildly offensive and childish, mostly for adults. It's like a hipster Toys R Us for grownups. It sells stuff that you simultaneously don't need, but REALLY need, so irresistibly fun do said items appear upon perusal.
But the name is odd — first, Soap Plant is oddly mild and antiseptic, like a shop selling organic and natural body cleansers, a boutique nursery stocking rare cacti from the New Mexico high desert, or best of all, the name of a mysterious, drab warehouse on the outskirts of town in the creepy, futuristic world of a George Orwell or T.C. Boyle story, with the word “plant” meaning factory. “What's that place?” “It's called Soap Plant.” “Soap Plant? What do they do there?” “No one knows, but the whispers around town are that those who get publicly executed end up in…” “Wait! Are you saying that…?” “That's right! Ivory Soap is PEOPLE!!” For a store specializing in the weird, the random and the slightly disturbing, a name sporting equal parts creepy ambiguity and mischievous deception is the best gift of all. And then what about that “Wacko” tacked on there?
It turns out the idea of a soap factory is where it all began: The business started out as Soap Plant in a different location, in Silverlake in the '70s. The shop, we're told, sold soaps and related toiletries. Once it moved, and the retail entity Wacko became attached to the business, it added the gift shop's name rather than come up with something new. That might explain why, to this day, many people still just call it Soap Plant.
Turn the page for more weird names — and insight into the true meaning of the word “trashy.”
The Apple Pan
The Apple Pan is one of those local institutions that can be weirdly confounding to recent arrivals. A sparsely appointed, down-home joint, it's a mom n' pop throwback so in opposition to modern, slick hipster L.A. that it feels more akin to locales in the Midwest or South than it does to the Los Angeles of Intelligentsia, Pinkberry and Mendocino Farms. The Apple Pan makes Norm's Restaurant feel like a tapas bar. But a segment of this city goes militantly bonkers for the place's burgers. “Oh my God, they have the best burger!” “You've never had their burger?!” “I would gladly drive across L.A. County from Long Beach during afternoon rush hour to get their burger!”
Notwithstanding the familiar fiercely possessive boosterism for an old-timey place (see Pink's, Henry's Tacos, etc.), it's Apple Pan's weird name that defines it. Why the mention of “apple” on the marquee of a burger joint? You think clean, healthy apples, and the positive, wholesome associations that go along with America's most primal fruit: apple pie, an apple for the teacher, the apple of my eye. Think of apples as you are handed a charred chunk of beef. That's not meat in that ambiguous “Pan,” it's actually an apple, undergoing some mystical fast food transubstantiation.
But, as it turns out, they serve a slice of apple pie there, too, and that's where the name came from. It was named by Ellen Baker, part of the husband/wife team that founded the place, because she intended to focus on pie, says her daughter, Martha Gamble, who still owns the place. And really: It's not the Bakers' fault that people fell in love with those burgers instead!
The name Trashy Lingerie is a good example a name that reflects what people are really thinking but wouldn't have the guts to actually say. This refreshingly gutsy approach to business naming is actually fairly easy. For instance, if you were naming a nightspot with total honesty, you might call it The Shitfaced Inappropriate Behavior Place, as this is what the majority of patrons would actually want in their experience. Similarly, a cafe might be called Cheap Indoor Hangout Space With Wall Sockets, and a massive department store would go by the name We've Destroyed The Competition, So Come On In.
A less honest owner of a ladies sexy undergarment store might have named it Intimate Lingerie, Risque Lingerie, or Thrilling Lingerie, but the owners of Trashy Lingerie understood even back in 1973 when they opened on La Cienega exactly what even the most upscale L.A. females secretly desire — to appear as erotically adventurous and “dirty” in bed as possible.
But that's not the true origin story. Owner Mitchell Shrier explains: “I designed a shoe 42 years ago and it was called The Trashy Shoe. First started with a shoe store, next to the current Trashy Lingerie, called 402 Shoes.” The lingerie shop came later, its name inspired by the name of that famous shoe.
Shrier adds, “Most people don't understand what the word 'trashy' is. It's a word from England in the 1800s — it was a woman that was a tease, and it was also a word for a little piece of dessert.” Tasty!
So there have you it. Have you always wondered about the origins of other L.A. businesses? Let us know which in the comment section, and we'll get right on exploring it.