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."

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