Since we started seriously dating–about 12 years ago now–Lea and I have had a catch-all term for a common sort of restaurant on the American landscape. The place has competently prepared but generally unremarkable American food, full table service, a bar, and often some wanly applied theme. It also has the characteristic for which we named them: miscellaneous crap hanging all over the place. Oh look, an old YIELD sign. Hey, there’s a few 45 RPM records. Wonder where the rest of that tricycle is?
We call them stuff-on-the-walls. We generally use the term when deciding where to go for dinner. “You wanna get barbecue, Asian, or just go to a stuff-on-the-wall?” I suppose it’s a negative commentary on the uniformity of such places, too. There’s really not much significant difference in the experience between Bennigan’s, Ruby Tuesday, Outback, Applebee’s, Chili’s, etc., and never mind that this place is an “Irish pub” and that place is a “neighborhood grill” or whatever.
Obviously they have their place, and it seems to be a pretty big one. The market doesn’t lie. Uniformity also means predictability, and sometimes everyone wants that. (However, I will confess feeling a little smug whenever I hear anyone but the very young or very old describe a stuff-on-the-wall as “my favorite restaurant.” Let’s maybe think about getting more than a mile from an interstate once in a while there, skippy. There’s bunches more out there than Extreme Fajitas for dinner and a knob-shopping trip to Lowe’s afterward.)
So what about this term “stuff-on-the-wall”? Well, as far as I know, we wrote it. I’ve tried a few times to insert a term I liked into the vernacular, and this is the most promising one yet. We might have done it. Somebody said every expression first.
But see, there’s a problem making an unconditional claim on it. If a term is witty and descriptive, it’s also going to have a certain obviousness about it, hence there’s a risk of multiple concurrent or near-concurrent introductions. So I really don’t know–indeed, can’t know–whether we initially composed “stuff-on-the-wall” to mean that kind of restaurant. Such is the organic and dynamic nature of language.
I believe there’s some non-negligible chance we made it up, and that’s about the best we can do. It does occur in the Urban Dictionary (more or less), but with only two votes at this writing it hasn’t been there long, and as I said earlier we’ve been using the term for more than a decade. So it might be ours. Whatever the case, use it. I like it.