Aqua’s bright new dining room. Photo courtesy of the Aqua by El Gaucho website.

What’s going on when a restaurant changes its name? Because it’s happening all over town lately.

Lots of times a name change signals a change in concept. In recent months Seattle has seen Campagne become the more affordable Marche, Spring Hill become the more Hawaiian Ma’Ono Fried Chicken and Whisky, Earth and Ocean become the more generic Trace (the name of W Hotel restaurants in Texas and California).

Other times, as my esteemed colleague Allecia Vermillion reported last week in Sauced, name changes are legally compelled. That happened just three months into the life of The Publican, the Wallingford beer bar/chicken-and-waffles nirvana that ran into trouble from a Chicago joint of the same name. Voila Burgundian Tavern —nevermind that Burgundy connotes wine, not beer. Owner Matt Bonney has an explanation for that.

Unquestionably the king of restaurant name-shifting in this town is Tom Douglas, Seattle’s most famous restaurant titan who nevertheless describes himself as stupid when it comes to naming his properties.

To wit, the sign just went up last week on the north-of-Pike Place Market takeout space he opened in summer of 2010, Tommy D’s Rub Shack. When it opened it was Seatown To Go, the takeout adjunct to Seatown Snack Bar—which itself proved a misleading name. “I was going for a beachy thing, like the snack bars you see all up and down the Eastern Seaboard,” Douglas explains. “Nobody got it. They didn’t know we served dinner.” Hence was born Seatown Seabar and Rotisserie.

More recently Douglas’ unbelievably delish biscuit bar Dahlia Workshop became Serious Biscuit to clarify its purpose a little better. “I do this thing where I don’t want another bar and grill or another café, so I go for a word like ‘Workshop,’” Douglas says. “Nobody knew what a workshop was! I did the same thing with Serious Pie, which people thought was a bakery, and Dahlia Lounge, which everyone thought was a bar.”

Sometimes a name change marks a marketing shift so subtle it’s all but invisible to the naked eye. I dined at Aqua the other night (nee Waterfront Seafood Grill) and noted the new carpet, the brightened wall colors, the teensy lettering beneath the Aqua logo that says “by El Gaucho .” Waterfront was every bit as much “by El Gaucho”— the famous local steakhouse chain—but the name change (along with the addition of a few El Gaucho menu classics, like the Tenderloin Diablo) was designed to brand it to the steakhouse. Perhaps establishing the connection to a fancy steakhouse sets a diner’s price expectations a little higher? Because as we discovered the other night…Aqua is one pricy fishhouse.