When it comes to music in restaurants, we all have war stories. Often the backing track is just too loud. Sometimes it’s personally grating: IMHO, no meal pairs well with the Bee Gees. The late composer Ryuichi Sakamoto was so exasperated by the BGM (the industry term for background music) at Kajitsu, his favourite Japanese restaurant in New York, that he offered to come up with a whole new playlist (listen here). Most diners don’t have that option. Instead, we relocate. Spare a thought for the staff. At some point, having to listen to David Gray’s White Ladder or the Gipsy Kings’ breakthrough album over and over – two heinous examples that reached my attention from two former waiters – becomes an actionable offence. “Bamboléo”? Not again!

Arman Naféei’s playlist features Jarvis Cocker, Martin Denny and Jackie Gleason
Arman Naféei’s playlist features Jarvis Cocker, Martin Denny and Jackie Gleason

Experts say good music in restaurants should be like good design. You don’t necessarily want to notice it. Arman Naféei is former musical director for all André Balazs’ hotels, including Chateau Marmont and Chiltern Firehouse, and now curates music for venues such as Le Sirenuse in Positano, the Kulm Hotel St Moritz and Loulou in Paris. He likens good sound design to a shadow: it should never lead, only follow. “Let the space and energy of people dictate,” he says. He mentions the garden restaurant at Chateau Marmont, where for years there was no music: “Older customers prefer no sound, especially in the US.” In a bid to “adapt to the times”, music was gradually introduced, starting about seven years ago in the smoking area: “Initially I used bird sounds, as the area resembles a little jungle at night,” he says. “Later I brought in ’50s exotica jazz in a nod to old Hollywood composers like Martin Denny, followed by more up-tempo blues”, as the area became more of a drinking-smoking-flirting scene. About two years ago, music was brought into the restaurant itself – “a lot of old Hollywood orchestral soundtracks”, says Naféei. “More of a warm sound or hum than clear music that becomes a distraction. You want to send a message subconsciously that people are entering the Chateau world.” (Listen to Arman Naféei’s playlist here.)

Andrea Gelardin’s playlist for restaurant Dear Jackie at London’s Broadwick Soho

Full playlist here. Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto, Arman Naféei and CJ Wright’s playlists

Music is known to drive behaviour. Loud music turns tables. An abrupt end signals closing time (or a power outage). Evening playlists tend to follow a similar template. Light ambient or sexy instrumentals encourage early- evening cocktails. A buzzy but unobtrusive soundtrack of, say, R&B or soul complements dinner. And a ramping up of volume and tempo with perhaps disco or house pushes people to the bar for one more drink, or to the dancefloor.

As creative director of the new Broadwick Soho in London, Andrea Gelardin (a former collaborator of Lady Gaga’s) had additional concerns when curating the music for its basement Italian restaurant Dear Jackie (see her playlist above). The soundtrack had to echo the theme and location. That meant modern Soho funk/disco with old-school Italian classics: “La Dolce Vita music that transports people to sunny Italian piazzas,” says Gelardin. The music also needed to harmonise with the interiors, a decadent and slightly camp scheme conceived by designer Martin Brudnizki. “Husky vocals felt like a good match,” says Gelardin. Diners have apparently been asking for the volume to be turned up even louder – perhaps fitting for Soho where customers are inclined to want a party vibe.

CJ Wright is a founder and director at Melbourne’s Looks Generous, a consultancy that specialises in hospitality spaces including sound design. He uses the term “vibe dining” to describe venues such as their client, Italian restaurant/after-hours lounge Bambino in Ho Chi Minh City, where music is used to add “edge”. The foregrounding of music (especially vinyl culture) to create an atmosphere and forge an identity is evident in the rise of listening bars and vinyl nooks (where customers are invited to play records from a collection) as well as DJ booths in restaurant spaces. “If I’m eating a great meal with friends and dancing a little in my seat that’s the best environment,” says Wright. (Find CJ Wright’s playlist here.)

Albums from J Wright’s playlist
Albums from J Wright’s playlist

Of course, it’s all about striking a balance. You don’t want music that calls attention to itself too suddenly. Naféei steers clear of “crazy solos on any instrument” and explosive vocals from the likes of James Brown or Janis Joplin. Wright recommends B-side tracks from popular artists such as The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Prince, which are reassuring without being too familiar. “You don’t want a whole lot of music that people haven’t heard before,” says Wright. “Every now and then, insert a track people know but a remix or cover, like a Turkish folk version of a Rod Stewart song. People go, ‘What is that song?’, and there’s nothing better than seeing that blue light under the table because they’re secretly Shazaming it.”  


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