After eight years of making playlists, I've never wavered from one simple rule: I play the music I want to hear if I'm eating in a restaurant, not what I think the customer wants to hear. We have a fondness at Momofuku for unconventional food and design, and the music ties it all together. We don't have much to speak of in terms of décor, so we make a feature of the music.
One of the key benefits of the only-playing-music-I-want-to-hear-in-restaurants rule is that it narrows down the entire musical universe to a master list of about 4000 songs. This might seem like a really small number, but in a bizarre totalitarian restaurant-music situation, it works.
It also neatly excludes all classical music and most jazz. Jazz in restaurants usually boils down to the same three albums everywhere anyway: Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis, and The Dave Brubeck Quartet's Time Out. These records are fantastic on their own, but they've been so recklessly overplayed that they endanger our enjoyment of jazz as an entire art form, kind of like the overfishing of bluefin tuna. Current top40 pop is out; techno-emo is a no-no, naturally, as are bands such as Enya, Travis and Coldplay, which I consider only really appropriate as soundtracks for the most marginal of Max Brenner branches.
In reality, though, we'll play just about anything. I like obscurity, but I don't want it to all be so esoteric that it's completely unfamiliar. So maybe I won't play Kiss, but I'll definitely blast Ace Frehley's solo album. Want to listen to The Rolling Stones? Sorry, you're stuck with Between the Buttons. You love Bob Dylan? We're gonna make the best of his triumvirate of lambasted Christian rock albums while you dine. Just because a song or a band doesn't register on the pop-culture Zeitgeist doesn't mean it can't be fantastic (and useful) ambient noise.
I make the playlists myself for all the Momofuku restaurants. Every restaurant has two iPods (one for back-up) and each currently has 16 playlists. I'd estimate they take something like two weeks to put together. They're particular to each restaurant - you'll never hear exactly the same progression of songs at the Noodle Bar on First Avenue that you'd hear at Má Pêche, or in Toronto. (You can bet, though, that you'll hear "Work Hard/Play Hard" by Palace Music at all of them.) I doubt that anyone eating at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney walks through the door expecting to hear Tesla's "Love Song" fade into a fiddle-heavy "We're Stepping Out Tonight" by Bobby Hicks, then a transition into Eddie Hazel's rendition of "California Dreamin'".
Seiobo is also, in a way, a shrine to Angus Young, the patron saint of Momofuku. We have two pictures of him on the wall, and I believe that we've already played every possible AC/DC song there during service, including "Big Balls", and we always try our best to play as much Bon Scott as possible.
Some pet peeves: no eulogy worship when a music star passes away, and don't play the music of a musician if they happen to be eating at your establishment at that time. And absolutely no Morrissey. Ever.
Once you've become comfortable with your 4000-song universe, the next step is the difficult part: choosing about 150 of those songs to fill eight to 10 hours' listening on an iPod. You never want the diner to hear the same song twice during service. (Don't listen to your staff if they say they're sick of hearing the same music; they just haven't realised yet that there are only 4000 acceptable songs.) Then further editing is required to make sure songs such as Pink Floyd's "Fearless" fade out early - at, say, five minutes and nine seconds - so you don't end up with football chants over the kombu doughnuts. Put on some headphones, go over your list and check that all the volume levels are equal. Give the mix an amazing name, such as MOMOFUKU BEST SUMMER MIX 2012 4EVAZ!!!! and you're ready to rock.