How pushy the lute players were in 14th-century Italian trattorias I don’t know, but were Dante writing his Inferno today he would surely include a tenth circle of hell for restaurants that play loud music.
Don’t get me wrong: I love music. That’s why I object to its ubiquity in restaurants. The wrong song can spoil my main, and this unnecessary noise is getting louder. From burger bars booming bad hiphop to street-food markets plagued by twee acoustic acts, it’s now hard to eat anywhere in serene conversational peace.
Here’s why music in restaurants so often strikes the wrong note:
Consensus or cacophony?
There’s a core of bland popular music (syrupy folk-rock à la Ed Sheeran, neutered soul in the vein of the Lighthouse Family, jazz that could be described as ‘easy listening’) that restaurateurs fall back on. It’s a safe bet, right? No! From grizzly, old blues devotees to 15-year-old grime fans, anyone with strong opinions about music loathes such sterile muzak.
The converse problem arises in younger, leftfield venues. Eating at Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In, I loved the clubby LCD Soundsystem playlist. But would my mum? Or nephew? There is no direct correlation between liking WTLGI’s hip, post-New Nordic cooking and LCD’s gnarly punk-funk. Food spans generations, it’s a common pleasure that bonds all ages. Music is personal and divisive.
It doesn’t help that when music is given real thought, it is often used manipulatively. Busy chain restaurants play fast music to try to make diners eat quickly and leave (yes, there is some evidence that this works!), while coffee shops major on beardy Bon Iver-like US folk to create a sense of rootsy authenticity that is rarely warranted. It feels cynical.
According to Action on Hearing Loss, 79% of us have left restaurants early due to excessive noise. Many modern venues are reverberating cauldrons of noise, which prompt diners to shout to be heard, exacerbating the problem – the so-called Lombard effect. This at times nerve-jangling din (one study suggested it inhibits our ability to taste properly), has been shown to reach over 90 decibels, equivalent to a motorbike revving nearby.
Talking of volume, I also despair at ‘glam’ joints, which, trying to create a slinky Ibiza vibe on the UK high street, play generic chilled house music at such a low volume that only the kick drum and rasping hi-hat are audible. Free of any context, that ‘thud-tsk, thud-tsk’ is sonic water torture.
At Volta in Manchester, owned by DJs The Unabombers, everything from the warm 1970s sound system to the way its playlist evolves from, say, obscure folk by day to vintage disco at night, is fastidiously designed to enhance the atmosphere for music nerds and casual diners alike. More restaurants should engage with music that closely, as a chef does with the food.
From classical pianists to Sunday jazz trios, live music does not work in restaurants. Are you supposed to focus on the act, your food or the friends you can’t hear above the lung-busting vocalist? It is always awkward.
Arguably in the early evening, restaurants need music so that it’s not oppressively quiet for the first guests. Later though (note: at London’s Pollen Street Social the music discreetly fades away), the sounds that should assert themselves are chat, laughter, clinking glasses and the buzz of service. Most chefs and diners agree that the most attractive restaurant soundtrack will always be the convivial music of hospitality.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.