Some punk with your poulet, sir?

What's playing on the stereo can speak volumes about the way in which a restaurant sees its diners – and vice versa – says Tim Walker.

When the Austrian-American super-chef Wolfgang Puck opened Cut, his first London restaurant, last year, the critics were complimentary about the £87 steaks. The incidental music, however, seemed to leave rather a bad taste in their mouths.

"It was impossible to fault any of it," wrote The Independent's John Walsh, "except for the intrusive music, which blared forth a selection of 1970s and 1980s rock classics – Eagles, Bowie, Billy Joel, Blondie, Police – as if we were listening to Capital Gold FM or (eek) dining in the Hard Rock Café."

Puck, who is 63, chooses the music for his restaurants personally and has been known to play Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety during a dinner service. Perhaps his favourite track is "Money" ("Money, it's a gas… new car, caviar, four-star daydream/ Think I'll buy me a football team"); Cut is a Park Lane establishment, where the rich, middle-aged clientele presumably includes a football-team owner or two. And middle-aged football-team owners who eat £87 steaks are surely the core of Billy Joel's fan base.

Meanwhile, a mile away, at the far end of the restaurant scale, is Marylebone's Meat Liquor, where customers eat "Dead Hippie" burgers (£7.50) off paper-lined trays, in a red neon-lit, faux-graffiti-sprayed space that feels more like a scuzzy Bowery rock club than a fashionable London restaurant. Hence the scuzzy Americana soundtrack: ZZ Top, Johnny Cash, Creedence, J J Cale. Chef Yianni Papoutsis's project began life as Meat Wagon, a mobile burger van with its own head-banging sound system. Meat Liquor, he says, is for people who like "loud music, greasy food and the dive-bar experience".

Might there be some people who like greasy food and quiet music, or who like loud music and greasy food, but not at the same time? Does "Hotel California" complement a steak like a good béarnaise? What sounds best with Caesar salad? How much does music improve or impair a meal?

Adam Smith is managing director of C-burn, a music consultancy that cooks up playlists and sound design for restaurants, including Meat Liquor. "Music should be like editing in films," he says. "You should only notice it when people want you to notice it. If you notice it when it's not intended to be noticed, then somebody has made a mistake."

Smith's firm has programmed music for chain restaurants such as Prezzo and fine-dining establishments such as Skylon on London's South Bank. "We try to match the music to the ambience of the venue," he says. "Music can paper over the gaps in conversation, or prevent people earwigging the diners at the next table, but it shouldn't be intrusive to the dining experience."

Puck's first and most famous restaurant, Spago, opened on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1982. LA is also where Puck began his Cut chain of high-class steakhouses. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city is home to a collection of DJs and companies who style themselves "music sommeliers", crafting soundscapes to match and enhance a restaurant's atmosphere. Putting rock music on the menu is a way to make even fine dining feel casual; at less-expensive establishments, it can help a younger crowd to feel at home by fooling them into thinking they're in a nightclub.

"We'll go into a venue and work out the trading patterns and the kind of punters who come in at different times," Smith says, "then tailor music towards them and towards the kind of people the restaurants want to attract. There'll be morning music for coffees and business meetings, lunch music, post-lunch music, weekday evening music, weekend music. The software we provide makes sure that those playlists are intelligently mixed so that you don't always hear the same music at the same time of day – which is as important for the staff as it is for the customers."

C-burn was launched in 1997. "When we started most places had more traditional acid jazz and ambient music," Smith says. "But as digital technology has taken hold with things such as iTunes and Spotify, people are becoming open to more different kinds of music; their general music knowledge is far greater than it was."

The New York Times recently measured noise levels at a number of restaurants in New York and found that they often reached an evening average of between 90 and 100 decibels – significantly louder than a subway train. "In restaurants," Smith says, "volume is probably more important than content; if you're having your lunch you don't want Mozart blaring out any more than you want banging techno."

Keith McNally, a Londoner who has opened 11 restaurants in New York in the past 30 years, is about to open Balthazar London, his first in his home city. McNally, like Puck, is known to pick most of his own music. At Schiller's Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side, where the NYT measured the noise at 91 decibels, the playlist is punk-heavy and McNally allows his staff to wear earplugs. At the Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village, he asked DJ Jordan Kessler to produce an ambient soundtrack of soul. McNally says Belshazzar's Feast, op 51, by Jean Sibelius, is the best CD to play at dinner.

Some restaurants are specifically associated with live music, such as Pizza Express, which opened a jazz club in the basement of its Dean Street branch in 1969 and has been supporting the jazz community ever since. The original rock-music restaurant is the aforementioned Hard Rock Café, which now has 175 branches worldwide. Its founders were supposedly the first to twig that loud, fast music led to quiet, fast eating: their customers ate more, and more quickly, which also meant they spent more and left sooner. A survey by Restaurant Management magazine recently found that sales increased by almost 12 per cent when up-tempo music was played during a lunch service. One study even claimed to prove that people chew faster when the beat speeds up.

Chef Heston Blumenthal, famed for his food-based experimentation, has even used sound as an ingredient. In 2007, diners who ordered a dish called "Sound of the Sea" at his Bray restaurant, The Fat Duck, were presented with an iPod containing an MP3 track of waves lapping at the shore. With the help of sensory psychologist Professor Charles Spence, of Oxford University, Blumenthal had learned that the sounds of the sea enhanced the taste of seafood. Spence has also shown that competing flavours in a dish can be drawn out with sound. Blumenthal's bacon-and-egg ice-cream, for example, reportedly tastes more eggy, or more bacony, according to its audio accompaniment: the sound of farmyard chickens (eggy), or sizzling bacon (bacony).

Sound can also detract from the eating experience, as Blumenthal discovered when he was asked to help relaunch the British Airways in-flight menu. A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Manchester demonstrated that sustained background noise – an aeroplane's engines, say, or "We Didn't Start the Fire" by Billy Joel – made foods taste less salty or sweet. Even Smith, who makes his living from music, occasionally recommends silence. "There are songs that people never need to hear again," he says. "Especially if they're paying £60 for a nice lunch."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism