Since opening Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village 10 years ago, Rebecca Charles has ruefully watched the arrival of a string of restaurants she considers “knockoffs” of her own. So "yesterday she filed suit in Federal District Court in Manhattan against the latest and, she said, the most brazen of her imitators: Ed McFarland, chef and co-owner of Ed’s Lobster Bar in SoHo and her sous-chef at Pearl for six years." She claims he copied “each and every element” of Pearl Oyster Bar, from the paint and chairs to her recipe for Caesar salad.
Guh, this stinks. One one hand, I can see how she's frustrated after pouring so much into her restaurant and watching her former employees go open similar places. But filing a lawsuit seems ridiculous to me. I'm no fan of copyrighting recipes (see Keep recipes free) and I'm not much in favor of intellectual property claims on restaurant themes either. Lobster rolls? "Packets of oyster crackers placed at each table setting?" A "white marble bar" for seafood? Have you ever been to New England or France? Rebecca Charles hardly invented these concepts ten years ago. Instead, she was free to incorporate them in her new place because they've existed for so long and been used by so many; because they haven't been copyrighted and trademarked by lawyers and corporations. These details are the essence of our seafood restaurant vernacular, that's why they resonate with so many potential customers and give her West Village restaurant an authenticity she's now trying to control. Mr. McFarland would be hard-pressed to open an authentic-seeming lobster bar without including at least some similar items.
The real problems here are a lack of originality being demonstrated by Ms. Charles' former employees, and New Yorkers' demand for faux New England seafood shack restaurants. Regarding the former, it would be nice to see chefs move on to open their own places that build on what they've learned in previous kitchens, not copy the concept outright. Regarding the latter, in the throes of summer, those unlucky souls trapped in the sweltering city can dream of coastal Maine or Cape Cod by digging into fried clams and lobster rolls right here in Manhattan. And if you've seen the lines at Pearl or Mary's Fish Camp, you know there's room in this city for a few more joints. I've always said I'd like to see Danny Meyer do a Clam Shack, and I'd like to see him do it without the fear of a lawsuit.