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Against pop music in restaurants

Pop music plays a big part in hip new restaurants. But can we have our gourmet meal without the side of Doobie Brothers?

Illustration: Mike Freiheit

Do you know what the B-side was on the 45 of Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl?”

I do, and not because I’m a member of Icon, the official Madonna fan club, nor because I edited the Music section of this magazine for four years. No, I know that the answer is “White Heat” because I ate a hamburger for brunch at g.e.b. As Best of the Doobies blared overhead, the waiter brought my check, which came clipped to that vinyl Madonna single from 1987.

Graham Elliot is a genuine rock & roll fanboy. I believe he’d take his job as the official chef of Lollapalooza pro bono, as long as it meant he got to personally prepare watermelon gazpacho for Ozzy and Flea. But on principle, I never trust the musical opinion of someone with a lot of tattoos. And if you’ve seen the arms of your average chef—or heard the music in most restaurants lately—you can see why. For years, the dining room was the realm of innocuous jazz—ambient music. Now, it’s a showcase for the frustrated musicians and DJs we call “chefs.” The music is mood altering—and not always in a positive way.

At Bub City, I devoured the BBQ joint and whiskey bar’s delectable burnt ends and gooey spoon bread and washed it down with a perfect, no-bullshit Paul McGee cowboy cocktail. As all ace mixologists do, McGee looks as if he stepped out of a saloon in Blood Meridian. Sure enough, there he was at the end of the bar, in his bad-ass, twirly-mustache glory—under the ginormous Carrie Underwood poster. Next to the glossy signed Lady Antebellum photo. While modern Southern bubblegum radio hits played over the din. All that was missing was the animatronic hillbilly bear. Lettuce Entertain You hired an expert to craft my Riverboat Gambler, so why couldn’t it find someone who gives a possum’s dick about country & western? Where was the Hank Williams? Senior, that is.

Then again, even when a restaurant’s music is perfect, it can be off-putting. Au Cheval soaks its patrons in a killer mix of avant soul and sample-heavy hip-hop, as if there was a jukebox in Brooklyn and only Questlove had quarters. On a recent Friday night, I heard Betty Davis, Mos Def, DOOM and Jamie Lidell, seemingly coming from the vintage reel-to-reel player behind the hostess. At one point, the reel-to-reel stopped spinning. After dealing with the crowd for ten minutes, the hostess restrung the reels and hit play. Yet, there was no break in the music. Beastie Boys and Arrested Development continued to flow. I’m not saying with certainty that the reel-to-reel player is a hoax, but what’s the point of transferring music that came on a CD to quarter-inch magnetic tape? The device is unnecessary furniture, a totem to hipster snobbery.

Restaurants are a risky business, and music tastes are personal, fickle things. Lockdown might serve amazing burgers, but how many of its patrons really want to devour them to a punishing soundtrack of grindcore and black metal? Likewise, I could barely tolerate drinking Alpana Singh’s thoughtful wine selections at the Boarding House bar, as Top 40 pap thumped overhead. Yet when I mentioned the place to a coworker, his first reaction was, “The music is great!” When I ate at g.e.b. at 10:30am, I savored the blasting of Weezer’s debut as much as the burger. It’s a top five record for me. The old couple at the next table? Miserable. Why introduce another variable to the room that can only piss off as many patrons as it pleases? At least when the music was ambient, nobody cared enough to notice.

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