‘I love the new Thom Yorke album,” says Dan Keeling of the restaurant Noble Rot in Bloomsbury, London, “but would I play the new Thom Yorke in the wine bar? Probably not.” As a former A&R man for EMI (he signed Coldplay – “They were a different band then,” he says apologetically), Keeling can’t help but notice what is playing on the stereo when he is eating out – especially when it’s wrong.
He can immediately recall examples at both ends of the fine dining spectrum: the Eat Tokyo chain plays “the most melancholic, weird, ceremonial synthesizer music – I often go in for a quick bit of lunch and come out feeling quite depressed.”
Meanwhile, diners at Asador Etxebarri in the Basque country – voted the third-best restaurant in the world earlier this year – may enjoy “a version of the British national anthem that sounded like it was played by a kid on the recorder,” says Keeling incredulously. “It was on a loop as well.”
At a time when streaming services suggest playlists by setting and mood, and music supervisors for film and TV are looked to for indications of the next big hit, there has never been greater awareness of the power of music to enhance a scene. Yet it is equally as capable of detracting from one – and this is often most evident when dining out.
Keeling’s cautionary tales speak volumes about the perils of playing DJ to a varied, indifferent audience principally concerned with their other senses. Accordingly, in Noble Rot, no music plays at all (although there is a turntable for vinyl in the wine bar).
“When I listen to music, I try to pay attention to it,” says Keeling. “It’s the same with food and wine – it’s about giving everything its due space and respect.”
But not playing music also gets around the crucial question of what to play. Keeling notes that diners at Noble Rot, a 55-cover restaurant, are diverse, ranging in age from their early 20s to 80-plus. “What are we going to play that everybody will feel enhances their experience? Music is as strong a flavor as food – it’s just another thing to get wrong.”
Over the past 15 years or so, an entire industry has emerged to help companies reflect – or even construct – their brand identity. “The earlier we get in there, the better,” says Mikey Vettraino of MAV Music Supervision.
Vettraino founded the music consultancy in 2004 after overseeing the introduction of music to the members’ club Soho House, where he was then operations manager. Since then, the company has assembled a global portfolio of more than 500 clients, including Wagamama, the O2 Arena and Gordon Ramsay’s Lucky Cat in Mayfair.
Vettraino says the music consultant serves as “blind DJ”: “You’re playlisting a song that’s going to come on, and you don’t know what the atmosphere is.” The company’s approach is to come up with a few playlists to suit different times of the day, each sonically cohesive enough to be put on shuffle (and about four or five times the length that it will play for, to avoid too much repetition – for the staff’s sake).
Song choice is informed by a back-and-forth with the client of representative songs, soundtrack snippets and moodboards. (Genres are considered to be essentially meaningless.) For example, Wagamama’s brief was to appeal to a twentysomething, urban woman, interpreted by MAV’s head of music and operations Alex Hill as Annie Mac-esque – “the very accessible side of alternative pop”.
Hill says there are some artists – such as Brando, Nightmares on Wax and Bonobo – that suit most settings: (and has made such a playlist of them for the Guardian here). “Death metal, or minimal techno, isn’t going to work 99 times out of 100.” There are also technical considerations, such as whether a song has been overplayed or whether an explicit song has a clean version, as well as disruptive outros and intros, guitar solos and spoken-word breaks to navigate. Most crucial for the service industries are the peaks and troughs throughout the day, week or seasons (MAV typically updates clients’ playlists quarterly).
After the lunch rush at Wagamama, for example, the soundtrack becomes softer and more atmospheric to take the edge off the experience of dining in a fairly empty restaurant. “You don’t want your banging-est playlist on when the restaurant’s empty and there’s one guy sat there,” says Hill.
Conversely, Wagamama’s new “grab and go” lunch spot Mamago requested high-energy, fast-paced music to encourage turnover. (Hotels are known to do the same to encourage guests not to linger at the buffet.) Music’s influence on staff productivity and customer spend was established by research dating back to the early 80s.
When the soundtrack and dining experience are in harmony, it can become a key part of an establishment’s reputation. Vettraino says that MAV’s playlists have cropped up in several restaurant reviews.
Diners’ requests to know the name of the song playing can suggest a burgeoning credibility with music lovers. Part of the appeal of Shoreditch street food market Dinerama (where MAV playlists have replaced live DJs) is the chance of hearing an obscure song or remix you like enough to look up on Shazam, says Hill. That may be best left to the experts. “There’s a lot of Spotify playlists called, like, ‘Your Morning Cafe’, and they do a job – but they’re not tailored.”
The desire to appeal to all tastes has led to some genres, artists and even songs emerging as staples for hospitality playlists – Radio 1 Live Lounge-style acoustic covers of Top 40 pop being one example.
Earlier this year, Hillary Dixler Canavan, the restaurant editor for the US website Eater, shared her take on “every generically cool restaurant’s playlist” with a Spotify playlist, featuring LCD Soundsystem, Phoenix, TV on the Radio, M83, Vampire Weekend and classic hip-hop such as Talib Kweli and Notorious BIG.
But in later unpicking why these songs seemed ubiquitous in the kind of establishments that served natural wine and cauliflower steak, Canavan noted that a defined audience was being targeted: millennial and Gen X diners in urban centers, with disposable income and skewing white. “That the musical taste of this cohort has become at all universalized is telling – and, sadly, not that surprising,” she concluded. That said: “Your parents would probably find it a bit too loud.”
It is a reminder that one way that music can influence people in a space is by shutting some out of it. For many dining establishments, the street cred to be gained from a distinctive playlist isn’t worth the risk of putting off some customers. For others, that is the goal.
Black Axe Mangal in north London is as often referenced for its blaring soundtrack of metal and grunge – Metallica, Queens of the Stone Age, Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe – as it is for its kebabs. “What’s the point in making it innocuous? You may as well not play it,” says its founder, Lee Tiernan, bluntly.
The thinking behind the polarizing playlist is the same as the genitalia graffitied on the floor, he says – “I just know the people I want to attract. I think Jay Rayner said it best in that it’s not for everyone, but if you’re into it, you’re really into it.”
In that sense, the music at Black Axe Mangal is as much a part of it as the food, says Tiernan – although, these days, hard rock has given way to more UK grime and US rappers such as Action Bronson, Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. “You can almost guarantee it’s going to be loud.”
The content featured on https://entertainment.directv.com/ is editorial content brought to you by AT&T. While some of the programming discussed may now or in the future be available by our or our affiliates distribution services, the companies and persons discussed and depicted, and the authors and publishers of licensed content, are not necessarily associated with and do not necessarily endorse AT&T. When you click on ads on this site you may be taken to AT&T marketing pages that display advertising content. Content sponsored or co-created by programmers is identified as "Sponsored Content" or "Promoted Content."