Enough of those inoffensive, latte-sippin’ jams selected purely to appease the baby boomers: the most memorable places to dine use music as just one more way to express themselves.
If you’ve worked in a restaurant or café in the past 20 years – even if you’ve dined out a whole lot – you’ll likely be familiar with a soundtrack I like to call: “Now that’s what I call hospitality”. It’s a collection of inoffensive, latte-sippin’ jams that get thrashed at eateries throughout the country, day after day, year after year. They don’t seem to have changed much since I started waiting tables when I was 17.
So often music in restaurants feels like an afterthought, a bit of background noise that hopefully no one will notice. It’s as if they don’t want to offend the baby boomers who make up the majority of the dining public, the ones who prefer their beats played at a less-than-audible hum so they can hear each other complain about how uncomfortable the stools are.
I know it’s hard to fill the hours of the day with music, and I know that keeping the playlist fresh feels like just another task on a seemingly endless to-do list, but to think that music doesn’t matter to a diner’s experience is to completely ignore one of our five senses, arguably the most emotive of them all.
You only have to think about how certain songs have the ability to make your skin prickle into goosebumps, and transport you to a certain time in your life. When I hear any song from Based on a True Story by Fat Freddy’s Drop (possibly the most abused album of all time in the New Zealand hospitality trade – I love Joe Dukie’s dulcet tones but please stop playing it, for everybody’s sake) I’m immediately taken back to the summer I was 19 years old, constantly stoned and riddled with pre-adulthood anxiety about what I was doing with my life. Not exactly a feeling I want to relive while I’m enjoying my sandwich.
For me, music has the ability to make or break a meal as much as all the other factors that need to fall into place for a great night out: the food, the service, the company, the vibe. It boggles my mind that restaurateurs will agonise over every other area of their business, right down to the hand-pinched ceramic salt bowls or customised wallpaper in the bogs, and then think it’s OK to unironically blast Hootie & the Blowfish full stink while you try to eat your dinner.
The winner of Metro’s Restaurant of the Year award, Auckland’s Pasture, has been applauded for its music curation almost as much as it has been for its food. It peaks and troughs, starting out mellow and building in volume and tempo as you progress through the menu. Kudos to them, but restaurants like this that consider music to be such an important part of the whole experience shouldn’t be such a rarity.
Owning and running a restaurant is a creative process, and the most memorable and fun places to dine use music as just one more way to express themselves. At Culprit, they unashamedly crank old and new hip hop, no matter how many groups of proper ladies have come to the early sitting; I go to Satya on K Road for the spicy snacks, craft beers, and excellent playlists curated by owner Sammy Akuthota, who says he only plays music that he wants to listen to; and at Amano, the minimal techno takes me back to a misspent summer in Berlin. It’s perfect for those acoustics and always tempts me to take the afternoon off work and order three more glasses of wine, which I generally do.
With so many of our best eateries now independently owned and operated, hopefully we’ll continue to see more places making good music a part of their stamp – playing tunes that are an extension of who they are and what they offer, regardless of whether it’s too loud or too nasty for some of the clientele. And if they lose a few baby boomers along the way, I’m sure they’ll find somewhere else to sip their latte in peace.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.