Posted on September 17th, 2012
Food, while central to any dining experience, is not nearly the whole of it. Sure, it is a reason, a celebrity, the birthday boy at the birthday party, and one of several make-or-break factors of the evening, but there are other considerations that make our dinners a success (or a disappointment). The décor, staff, location, company, other diners/scene, silverware, and music all play an enormous role in how we perceive a given night’s culinary experience, and whether we may try to recreate it in the future.
That last one – music – may seem unimportant to a lot of people (you can’t taste it and it can’t spill Bordeaux on you), which may explain the indifferent Top 40 mixes blasting a bit too loudly over most sound systems in an overwhelming number of big city restaurants. However, the right music, played at optimal volume for the space, not only enhances your enjoyment of that space; it gives the establishment a sense of personality, and provides a glimpse into what the business aspires to be, whom it wants for its clientele, and who is running it. You can have a beautifully designed dining area with an interesting menu, a mahogany bar, and expert mixologists, but if you lazily pipe through an Usher / Bieber mix, beware: you are donning a brand new John Varvatos suit and matching that with torn, filthy Chuck Taylors, toes peeking out and all.
Similarly, your dinner party soundtrack will help to set the tone for the experience and for how your guests perceive your abode. I once attended a dinner party where a (virtually unknown, for a good reason) DJ was also a guest. The hostess allowed him to soundtrack the dinner, which resulted in several extended mixes of Cypress Hill’s “Jump Around” playing back to back. The guests seemed happy for the first five minutes, but then grew uncomfortable. After I loudly pointed out the issue, the DJ turned red with embarrassment and changed the music. (If you think I was being too forward, try sitting through this sort of thing yourself.)
Fail Safe Rules
Professional studies have been performed to determine the best soundtrack for dining out (and shopping and running and anything else you can do that will let someone else sell you product), but through personal experience I have found that the best music for social dining and cocktailing generally satisfies several rules:
- No instrument (including vocals) should stand out too much. If the music can function as a pleasant whole, it will provide a nice backdrop to the conversation. That means no shrill trumpet solos, no blazing electric guitar licks, and no vocal histrionics. The music’s goal is to complement, in this case, not pull the whole blanket to its side of the bed, like a frustrated guitarist trying to Van Halen his bass.
- Fast is bad. Too slow is generally bad. Mid-tempo to moderately slow music provides optimally pleasant rhythms for chewing and mingling.
- Certain instruments perform better than others. Cushy trip hop beats do better than pounding drums; distortion gets in the way of conversation; orchestral swells may make one hungry for the Titanic DVD, but never for crab cakes.
(All of the above does not mean, however, that you should be playing muzak at your dinner parties. Few things are less appetizing than canned, fatigue-inducing sounds that some corporation put together specifically to fit the average person’s soiree. And sure, those “jazz for every day of the week” and “electronica for every cocktail in the book” compilations may seem like an easy way out, but before giving up, at least try to put an original mix together – or ask a music-savvy guest.)
These rules make it hard to mess up, but if every establishment followed them, our dining experience would suffer. Restaurants and cafes have personalities, much like people, and like people they attract certain kinds of friends (or in this case, patrons). An organic café in Portland, with reclaimed wood furniture and bearded staff, may choose to play Woods or The Allman Brothers; a Chicago restaurant known to its creative professional clientele for its brunch may opt for a Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins mix; and a dark establishment in the trendy NYC neighborhood of Chelsea may choose current hip hop. The trick is to pick out the right songs or albums by the artists that your clientele would want to hear at dinner.
That said, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been disappointed with the musical offerings of restaurants. Steakhouses in New York have become regular offenders. When I order a medium-rare porterhouse and a classic Manhattan cocktail from a waiter in a white shirt, surrounded by stately furnishings, basking in the dim lighting, and preparing to leave a couple of hundred on the table, I want the full steakhouse experience, and that includes jazz – cool jazz, hard bop, standards, whatever. Instead, I am frequently pelted with gems of wisdom from the likes of Eminem and melisma of the Christina Aguilera School of Vocal Craft. That sort of soundtrack makes me want to call the waiter back, cancel the cut of meat, and just order a hot dog. (Then again, I just might be behind the times. I still enjoy dressing up for a nice steakhouse, and often find myself next to a table of people dressed head to toe in running gear.)
To prevent complete anarchy from taking over your dinner parties, here are the types of music that probably won’t work.
- Opera. I am a big fan of classical music at dinner. Pop open a bottle of pinot noir, put on a chamber quartet recording, and you’ll feel like a thousand bucks even if your dinner consists of spaghetti and sausage. Opera, however, is a different animal, a powerful beast. Remember Lt. Colonel Kilgore’s helicopter armada in Apocalypse Now, blasting Wagner’s March of the Valkyries from mounted speakers as they shelled a Vietnamese village? At its best, opera has heft; it’s packed with highs, with emotion. If you understood the words, you would see that many of them amount to “Betrayal! O, I am slain!” Foie gras consumption may require a less intense backdrop.
- Gangsta Rap. The only appropriate dining venue for this music may be a backyard barbeque. Organic goat cheese on crispy French baguette does not pair well with f-bombs.
- Nu Metal. Does this really require explanation? If anyone knows what this music is good for, apart from soundtracking Ultimate Fighting promos or revisiting old MySpace profiles, please enlighten me.
- Death Metal. There is a particularly entertaining scene in Julie Taymore’s Titus, her brilliant, horrifying adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where Anthony Hopkins’ antihero feeds the Goths a dinner prepared of their own children, unbeknownst to them; all hell then breaks loose as diners slaughter one another, in quick succession, to a soundtrack of thrash. Unless your goal is to reenact that scene, more serene music is recommended.
- Dance Music. Careful with this one. There is definitely a time and a place for it, but unless the food is so horrible that you’re hoping to immediately herd everyone onto the dance floor in the hopes they won’t notice the overcooked salmon and cut-rate spinach, let the DJ in after the last course has been taken away.
(Certain neighborhoods in Manhattan are overflowing with restaurants that double as clubs, and clubs that serve food. The dishes are mostly generic and overpriced, if inoffensive. Why anyone would want to have a real dining experience in a dance club is beyond me; it makes as much sense as putting a pool table and a jukebox in your bedroom. [Space-starved New Yorkers paying $2.5K/month for a studio may disregard this comparison.])
The One Sure Thing
For my money, the best album to play at any dinner party, front to back, is Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis. In fact, this is the perfect album for many occasions in life. Sure, it’s one of the most famous jazz records of all time, but for once, the hype is completely justified. Masterful musicianship, mostly downtempo rhythms, flawless recording; this music is sexy without actually screaming “sex,” and also just what your dinner party needs. (Own a record player? A bit of that vinyl hiss makes it all the better.) If you know of a steakhouse that is fond of playing this one, do drop me a line.