Music in restaurants: better to eat in silence or with a Contini and L'Escargot Bleu style soundtrack? -
When I started reviewing restaurants, back in the mid-noughties, I was young(ish). My ears were fresh, like silk purses, and I could hear a sparrow chirping from a mile away. I’d get the occasional reader letter or email, presumably from someone a tad more ancient, which would request that I please mention the music and noise levels in venues.
Pah, I’d think, it’s pretty inconsequential, I don’t really need to bother. Sometimes I’d oblige and add in a bit of chat into my write-ups, but that’s only if the venue was pumping Gabba techno or death metal and it felt relevant.
Otherwise, I didn’t really notice what was playing in the background. It was easy to zone it out.
However, now I understand what they meant. You reach a certain age and bad acoustics and background music become a bugbear.
Even the sound of someone scraping a seat back across the floor is now like some kind of Clockwork Orange Ludovico Technique-style torture. It makes me wish heavy textiles would come back into fashion. Shag carpets, preferably. And all restaurants should invest in those felt pads that you can find in the depths of John Lewis’ haberdashery department. Think of your chair as a horse that needs to be shod.
I’m also tormented by knives on stoneware plates. The screech makes my toenails turn inside-out, then drop right off into my shoes. They’re rattling around in there at the thought of it.
I don’t think my hearing is particularly impaired, but there’s definitely some sort of aural shift going on.
It’s become especially hard to sift through sounds, to find the relevant ones.
My other half is worse. When I speak at dinner, I’m sure all he absorbs is what Snoopy’s Charlie Brown would hear when the teacher talks. “Wah-wah-wah”.
Anyway, I don’t want to endure a cacophony, when I’m stuffing my face.
I can better understand why my late dad, in his final and quite deaf (but in denial and refusing to get a hearing aid) years, would sit in silence, whenever we went to a restaurant. It makes me sad to think of him, detached and given up on trying to engage in conversation, often at one of our favourite family birthday venues, when he should’ve been having a good time.
My mum is the same now. If she has her hearing aid in, it’s too loud. Without it, it’s too quiet. So, silent lunches it is.
But what can be done, apart from sticking egg boxes to the ceiling and acting like restaurants are monasteries?
You do need some sound, to drown out the noshing and guffawing.
Some places make the most of their music licences.
I listened to Jessie and Lennie Ware’s Table Manners podcast recently.
It featured an interview with food presenter Phil Rosenthal, of Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil fame. As part of the chat, he said he’d heard that some restaurants play loud music to turn tables quicker.
I don’t know if that’s true, but it’d work on me, especially if those sounds are live. I’d slide across the pass and be straight out of the fire exit at the sight of someone plugging in a guitar. It’s not like it’ll ever be an amazing gig, it’ll only be someone singing nasal Lewis Capaldi cover versions.
The genre also matters, because, as well as the volume levels, you don’t want rubbish tunes.
The ones who do it best probably include Contini in Edinburgh, who have been proudly playing the Radio Swiss Jazz station in all three of their restaurants for a couple of decades. I bet that’s nice to listen to, alongside a cappuccino with a cube of tablet on the side.
I’ve had to endure some terrible tracks at recent reviews. The one that stuck in my head was a jazz version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was played alongside a whole load of other horrible covers.
“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us, scoobly-de-di-do-wah”.
In contrast, I loved the jazz they were playing recently at Dunkeld restaurant and wine shop, Redwood. It was part of the experience, and matched the feel of the space. We slowed down, parked our worries and simultaneously came over all sophisticated.
Although I’m not usually a fan of overly cheesy tracks, a while ago, I was at the L’Escargot Bleu Wine Bar and they were playing a school disco 1986-ish playlist. It was joyous, as we identified the opening strains of Flashdance while guddling about in the fondue.
I also love it at Edinburgh’s Gardener’s Cottage, and Inver in Cairndow, where they cleverly have record players and a selection of vinyl. They actually return them to the inner and outer sleeves, too, unlike the ones of my youth, which were scratchier than a Cy Twombly sketch.
Of course, if you’re going to let diners decide on the track, there can’t be any dud records there. They’ve got to suit oldies, youngies, families, and first dates, so no Je t’aime moi non plus or Lil Louis’ French Kiss cringe.
When I went to Inver in the summer, they played a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song that I love, and it was the perfect soundtrack to lunch.
As soon as it finished, I was tempted to drop the needle right at the start again.
Even better, not a single person interrupted it by scraping their chair back.
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