Have you ever been delicately chowing down at a nice restaurant when the music and the conversation in the room suddenly, coincidentally, dip to silence? The room changes. The delicate atmosphere of finery waffles for a moment, laid bare without the sounds which support a world where paying $22 for a tiny piece of monkfish seems, well, the civilized thing to do. When the next song starts, you unconsciously breathe a sigh of relief.
Most restaurateurs know music is a key ingredient in cooking up the kind of cohesive and distinct atmosphere necessary to survive in a market stuffed with eateries. But from the retro jukebox at the Portland Diner on Portland Street to the live jazz music on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the tiny Barbara’s Kitchen and Café in South Portland, local restaurateurs disagree on the role music should play in relation to a meal.
“We don’t have the space to accommodate live music and, for the clientele we have, it’s not really live-music conducive,” says Robyn Violette, general manager of Fore Street in Portland, voted “Most Romantic Restaurant” in our 2005 Best of Portland poll and a granddaddy of fine dining.
“Our music is fairly low-key, there’s hardly any words; we play music that’s instrumental,” says Violette. “We stick to blues and jazz, a lot of the well-known names. To have someone banging on the drums while people are eating dinner kind of goes against what we’re about. The contemporary stuff just doesn’t fit with our mojo, I guess.”
At David’s Restaurant in Monument Square (pictured), general manager Natalie Ladd believes her live music shows on Thursday and Sunday nights are popular because they’re entertaining but not overwhelming.
When David’s isn’t hosting live shows featuring covers of artists like Springsteen, Dylan, and Lovett, Ladd says she plays lots of acoustic folk over the restaurant’s speakers. She says the key is to go with your gut — does this music mesh with the atmosphere the restaurant hopes to create?
“It has to fit,” she says of the music she allows. “When you go to a restaurant and you’re paying $24 for rare, pepper-crusted tuna served sushi style over sesame seed soba noodles and frizzled leeks, you want it to be as much about your food as anything else. It has to fit with the rest of the food, with the atmosphere, with everything. Because music makes or breaks anything in life.”
The relationship between the type of music playing in a restaurant (loud or soft, fast or slow) and the amount of time and money people spend in the restaurant is a hot topic in consumer research, where studies have shown that music with a faster tempo makes people eat quickly and run (good news if you want to turn tables, bad news if you’re paying rent from dessert and cocktails). If the music is slower, patrons tend to linger, chat, and order more drinks. Makes sense.