Writing. Design. Social Change.

Music creates the mood in restaurants.

Of course the right atmosphere depends on many things including food presentation, color scheme, décor, lighting, even typeface. But aside from the actual taste of the food, music is the most persuasive force on the mood of customers and a powerful indicator of their overall aesthetic experience.

Studies such as The effect of background music on the behavior of restaurant customers” and “The influence of music tempo and musical preference on restaurant patron’s behavior” contribute to the study of atmospherics – the controllable aspects of a retail space designed to influence the customer’s mood.

In a nutshell, research indicates that customer’s music preference is a strong indicator of time spent in a restaurant. And time spent in a restaurant is the most powerful predictor of money spent in a restaurant. Seems to me that restaurants should listen up when it comes to their customer’s preferences.

Hands down, the best music is live music. Nothing is more integrative. Appropriate. Transportive, even. Take for example, the charming piano player at Bemelman’s Bar at The Carlyle. Alas, like suspenders, live dinner music is becoming a thing of the past.

Most often we dine to a soundtrack. At best, this is something well crafted, designed to elevate the meal. At it’s worst it’s something discordant – something that detracts from our dining experience.

Lately, I’ve been wishing for a little more thoughtfulness, a little more nuance in the music-to-dine-for department. That’s what I’m calling it. I’m searching for the places that are getting it right. Below are a few of my recent encounters with music and atmosphere in restaurants in New York. Then I’ll discuss how social media platforms can help create a more harmonious experience for restaurant and customer.

Experience #1

The Mermaid Inn – a fun spot for oysters, lobster rolls, and chocolate pudding in the East Village. With the first oyster I was planning a summertime trip to Maine. But over time, the loud music started to grate on me. Then I started to notice the songs. There was Dire Straits. Then A-Ha. Then Stevie Nicks. The 80’s era music went from distracting to downright annoying. So much so that the music became a topic of conversation. I asked our server what the philosophy behind the music was. He said that is was supposed to appeal to the 30-something- “I want my MTV” – crowd.

Experience #2

Lunching at Prune, I had a similar experience. As I am currently reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s acclaimed food memoir Blood, Bones, & Butter, why not visit her rave review restaurant in the East Village? I found the place pretty, easy-going, and all together enjoyable. Food, décor, lighting, ambiance, all absolutely charming. It is a clean, well-lighted place in the very best sense. The downside? It’s cramped. And the music only contributed to this feeling of claustrophobia. They were playing an entire Fleetwood Mac album. Song after song there was no escape. Why were they doing this? What were they trying to evoke? Perhaps influenced from Glee? 

Experience #3

Stopped in for a slice at Two Boots To Go West, a tiny pizza place in the West Village before catching a set at the Village Vanguard across the street. They played Miles Davis. And it elevated that pizza slice ten-fold. 

Experience #4

Another favorite, Five Points (NoHo), hits on every little thing but the music. Again, it’s the 80’s – early 90’s thing. Of course I will keep coming back for their amazing food and the fact that they serve my favorite oysters (Beau Soleil) but their music is just off. And quite loud. A reviewer has commented on this on Yelp

Frankly, I’m surprised more people haven’t spoken up about the music on Yelp. Yelp is an incredibly useful user review/local search platform. As the reviews are user-generated, it is a means to democratic dialogue, where users influence others based on their write-ups. And in the best-case scenarios, users might even have a voice in shaping the way a company operates.

Other platforms for customers to voice their opinions to restaurants and to each other include Foursquare, Twitter, and Facebook (Pages and Places) as well as the company blog. Commenting directly to the company on Twitter has the best chance of being heard and the best chance of getting a response. (That is, if they have a Twitter).

A good friend who works at Radius, a modern French restaurant in Boston, described how Pandora Radio, the online music service, has changed the atmosphere of the restaurant:

Customers began asking what had changed. The décor? The lighting? Something was different. More contemporary. But it was just the music.

Radius switched from the owner’s iPod playlist to a hand-crafted station on Pandora centered around the band The xx – an indie pop band from England. What other places have music-to-dine-for? What have you noticed about how music creates atmosphere in a restaurant? Who is doing it right?

One Response to “Music to dine for”

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