Thanks to Tanya Wenman Steel’s “Epi-Log” at Epicurious for bringing to my attention the lawsuit that has been filed by one restaurateur against another in New York City. At issue are two establishments: One, the Pearl Oyster Bar, a decade-old Greenwich Village stalwart, and the other, Ed’s Lobster Bar, an emerging SoHo upstart.
According to Pete Wells’ New York Times story on the matter, the issue revolves around intellectual property rights, insofar as the Pearl’s Rebecca Charles believes that her former sous-chef, Ed McFarland, stole both the look of his restaurant and some recipes from the Pearl. According to Wells, Ms. Charles is particularly incensed about the Caesar salad recipe Mr. McFarland is using, which she claims is made from her own recipe which she in turn learned from her mother.
As most everyone in the hospitality biz will agree, theft has been part and parcel of the creation of a new restaurant for generations. A white marble bar and oyster crackers placed at every setting, two elements Ms. Charles claims were stolen from the Pearl by Mr. McFarland, are hardly new ideas, and I find it rather incredulous that Ms. Charles’ mother might have been the first to make a Caesar salad with a coddled egg. Certainly the Pearl’s own signature dish, the lobster roll, was enjoyed on the shores and at the food stands of New England long before it was transplanted to New York City.
But it bears pondering what might happen should Ms. Charles be successful with her suit. Will drinks recipes, for example, become copyright protected entities? And if so, will bartenders be obliged to scour drinks lists from near and far before they place a new cocktail on the menu, lest someone have already beaten them to the punch with a too-similar concoction? Even further, if I put a spin on a classic, such as a Manhattan made with red Lillet and a squeeze of lemon, will I be able to sue someone who does the same thing with white Lillet? (I know, neither sound all too appealing, but I’m just trying to make a simple example here.)
The Pearl vs. Ed’s case may be just another nonsense lawsuit, or it may be something that radically transforms how the hospitality industry in the United States operates. Either way, it bears watching.