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Speaking from the Gut

Food signs that sidestep written language


In earlier, more illiterate times, tavern owners beckoned their patrons with illustrated signs that promised food, drink, and companionship. In today’s polyglot New York, restaurateurs, deli owners, and street-cart vendors are taking a similar tack, relying on images to span or sidestep the bounds of written language. They show, rather than tell.

These are just a few of the signs I’ve encountered while walking the streets for my website, Eating In Translation. I chose the name, in part, to reflect how foreign cuisines are reinterpreted with local ingredients for a different clientele.

Some, such as the signboard chalked in Bengali script in Woodside, promise particular raw ingredients. Others, like the wooden placard of Belgian fries, the projected image of Cantonese noodles, or the lonely neon burger at the back of a hotel corridor, convey the message, “ready to eat.” The honeycomb image on a screen attached to a Koreatown awning suggests a special circular charcoal grill and a homey style of cooking, even when the ticking green LED letters don’t spell out “Table B.B.Q.”

All of them speak to the desire of current-day tradespeople to make their wares available to a city of customers who, as a group, speak hundreds of languages, but whose only common tongue might be a love of food.