Dining Out

How music informs taste

The tunes you get served at your favourite restaurant or bar can make or break your experience. Here’s how they hit the right notes.

I’m that person who will stop the table talking when a good track comes on. “Is that…is that Bran Van 3000?” I cried on a recent visit to Ursula’s in Sydney’s Paddington, forcing my companion to eat in silence as I basked in this obscure, mid-90s, Canadian one-hit wonder. Music, to me, is as important to a restaurant as its food, its service, its décor. Get it right and customers will sense that the atmosphere feels right in a way they may not even be able articulate. Get it wrong – too loud, bad quality, inappropriate tempo – and expect to clear the room.

In fact, music is so powerful that it can influence what you order, how much you spend or even how your food tastes. “There are studies that show if you play French music in a restaurant, people are more likely to order a bottle of French wine,” says Catherine Giuliano, director of general licensing at OneMusic Australia, which handles copyright and music licensing for venues around the country.

Another study conducted in a Swedish café in 2017 showed that the louder the music, the more likely diners were to make unhealthy food choices. And – incredibly – sounds have even been shown to affect flavour: sweet foods are supposed to pair well with high-pitched sounds, whereas lower-pitched sounds enhance a food’s savouriness. So bakeries could do well to pump out the Kate Bush and the Bee Gees, and pizzerias might want to stick to Tom Waits and Barry White.

Increasingly, though, bars and restaurants are treating music not as mere aural wallpaper or simply a way to put customers at ease – but as a feature. Vinyl – inherently full of personality and character – is experiencing a comeback. Bars like Hobart’s Sonny, Sydney’s Ante and Perth’s Astral Weeks – as well as the Music Room at Melbourne’s HER, which can pan whatever it’s playing onto every floor of the venue – are reinstating turntables as a centrepiece of their eating and drinking experience.

Record bars, says Astral Weeks’ Sean O’Neill, are a fairly new concept in Australia, but they’ve been taking off around the world – particularly in Japan and London – for years. “The idea is to have a space where people who have done their time going to loud nightclubs and pubs can come and have a nice drink and a chat to their friends, but also enjoy listening to music,” says O’Neill. They’re also a great way to make customers’ and staffs’ tastes a central part of the creative process. “We had this lovely 80-year-old woman in the other night who loves The Rolling Stones so I put on one of their really nice acoustic albums for her,” says Alister Robertson from Sonny. “Or our regulars will sometimes flip through the records and go ‘Oh, do you mind?’ and we put that on for them. Or a chef might call out, ‘Hey, we haven’t heard any Beatles this week!’ It’s fun. And the overall motivation is really just to affect people positively.”

Music done right can also take on a tonne of the heavy lifting needed to transport you to a different universe entirely – or at least a different country. At Sydney’s Londres 126, co-owners Liber Osorio and Pablo Galindo Vargas want their customers to feel like they’ve been whisked to the cantinas and cabarets of 1940s and ’50s Mexico City. Osorio – himself a lifelong musician – sometimes takes it a step further by bringing out his accordion. Over at Restaurant Hubert, the regular playlist of sexy, French-leaning jazz and beats gives way six nights a week to live music – including a line-up of legends like Clayton Dooley and Mary Heat. They generally start things off with bebop and cool jazz and wah-wah up to rowdier New Orleans-style jazz by the end of the night. “People love it,” says co-owner Stefan Forte. “It completes the Hubert experience.”

Music can elevate or obliterate the joy of any dining experience, really. Recently I looked back over my notes from a restaurant where I’d scribbled the words, “Ugh, too many strings” after being harangued by an overkill of high-pitched whiny violin while trying to enjoy my ravioli. My Shazam app is full of snatched songs from visits to various restaurants and bars – Goody Goody, Greentea Peng, Jesca Hoop – that have made as much of a positive impression as the service or seasoning.

“Music,” as Sonny’s Alister Robertson simply says, “is an ingredient.”

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