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."

Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
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

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried