"The Elephant Walk" name was contrbuted by my mother, Pat Perry.
Of course there's more to it than that.
It was the spring of 1991 and Nadsa and I needed to catch our breath in the run-up to opening the original Somerville restaurant. For a quick break we took a short trip to Nashville where my family was living. A couple of nights into our visit the group of us were having trouble deciding where to go out to dinner. I couldn't get the name of a restaurant we must have passed a dozen times in a single day on the car trips between my mother's and sister's houses: It was called "MultiBob."
"MultiBob is terrible!" someone said, a sentiment echoed by one or two other locals in our group: "The food is terrible!" Okay. That's generally a pretty good reason not to go to a restaurant... So we dutifly sifted through maybe two dozen other dinner options, finding some reason to reject each and every one - "too expensive," "too formal," "too boring," "too weird," "too far." Exhausted, everyone's resistance finally worn out, we made the decision: Dinner would be at MultiBob.
Our upbeat group jumped right into the festive atmosphere in what was a very funky dining room, with beaded curtains separating dining rooms and a Moorish door arch with plastic elephants marching upside down inside the arch, from floor up to the peak and back down to the floor again.
About halfway through the meal the group had grown quiet. We all seemed to realize at once: the thrill was gone. The food WAS terrible. And we knew it WOULD be! Why the heck were we here? - It...was...the...name. "MultiBob" was unforgettable! I admit it: I just had to eat there. I could get over the bad food [or so I thought]. - But in the end, dining at MultiBob has to be one of the best bad decisions I've ever made.
The working name for our first restaurant at that time, in the early stages of construction, was "Cambodia Café." Our Cambodian-and-French cuisine concept was in place, and I felt it was important that we should try to communicate who and what we were through our name.
"No, no, no!" said my mother: "Don't be so literal, so trite, BORING!" She went on to say that the name should be evocative, a little frivolous perhaps, and should definitely inspire questions rather than answer them. "No, why don't you have some FUN? Why don't you call it 'The Elephant Walk' or something?"
Lots of glances from side to side and across the table at one another... The group suddenly had its mojo back. About two hours of high-energy brainstorming later we had a color scheme, interior design and logo all figured out. The Elephant Walk was named - maybe even saved from my own, narrow conservative streak - by a terrible, wonderful meal at MultiBob. And by my Mom.
And a month later I found some of those very plastic elephants for sale at Toys 'R' Us! A few of those ended up on "the elephant walk" that rings the maining dining room of our Boston restaurant.
My mother was absolutely right: To this day people still ask us about the origin of our name, proof positive of an excellent, perhaps crucial business decision. - I think in the moment she must have put together those plastic elephants marching up and down that door arch with her love for classic movies. "The Elephant Walk" was first used as the title of a book by Robert Standish published in 1949 and later made into a classic 1954 "B" movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Andrews and Peter Finch. It is the story is a melodramatic love triangle set in a tea plantation on Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
The inspiration to use the name felt genuine because elephants have always been important in Cambodian culture and history, as beasts of burden and war widely portrayed in the intricate friezes throughout the temple complexes of Angkor Wat and its environs, including the stately and spectacular "Elephant Terrace." White elephants were historically prized and kept in the royal court. There is an "Elephant" mountain range in Western Cambodia.
The name was ultimately chosen because of its resonance, its euphonic evocation of the romance of a bygone era in Southeast Asia when Cambodian and French culture were entwined.