Despite the shrinking number of Chinese restaurants in the District’s designated Chinatown area, District law mandates that each business display its name in Chinese (whether traditional or simplified characters). The 80-page “Chinatown Design Guidelines Study,” prepared by a private firm under the guidance of the D.C. Office of Planning, is prefaced with the goal of helping “to create an enhanced Chinatown with a strong Chinese character.”
According to Edward Giefer, associate director of OP, signs are usually created by the developer, business owner, or business owner’s sign maker in consultation with members of the Chinatown Steering Committee, the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, or with other native speakers. His office is charged with final design review.
One of the newest eateries to go through the process is HipCityVeg—a vegan quick-bites concept imported from Philadelphia. McHenry Project Consultants’ Chris DeLuca oversaw the process for HipCityVeg, which started by hiring a Philadelphia-based translation firm, to come up with a phonetic translation using simplified Chinese characters. However, the review board came back with an alternative, which they utilized. “Hey, if that is what they’re suggesting, and they’re the ones approving, we went along with it,” DeLuca says.
I asked my friend Joan Xie, a Maryland resident and Shanghai native, to weigh in by translating the Chinese signs sans context clues. According to Xie, HipCityVeg translates to “laugh city restaurant,” because the first symbol means “haha,” as in the sound of laughter. She then tackled nine more name translations in Chinatown, demonstrating a well-intentioned but sometimes imperfect process.
Fuddruckers: “Best Burger in the World”
Legal Sea Foods: “Seafood Restaurant”
Cava Grill: A phonetic translation of Cava that translates to “Card Hair Greek Snack/Café”
La Tasca: “Spanish Restaurant”
Hooters: “Owl Restaurant”
Chop’t Creative Salad Company: Chao Bo Ter is a phonetic translation of Chop’t. The second line means “Genius Salad Company.”
Matchbox: “Traditional Pizza”
RFD: “Gourmet Beer”
Fado Irish Pub and Restaurant: “Ireland Pub”
HipCityVeg: “Laugh City Restaurant”