A restaurant meal is a combination of sensory experiences, from the aromas emanating from the kitchen to the design of the dining room to the taste of each dish. But there’s one sense that’s often overlooked in the dining experience: sound.
Beyond the chatter of other diners, the clink of plates and glassware, and the general din of a restaurant, music usually sets the mood in the dining room. The soundtrack is not just background noise, but a series of carefully chosen songs, sometimes following a theme.
Tal Baum sees music as part of the transport atmosphere at his Atlanta restaurants Aziza, Rina, Bellina Alimentari and Atrium, which begins as soon as people walk through the door. Playlists receive the same attention to detail as each restaurant’s food design, menu, and food presentation. This is especially true, says Baum, of Aziza’s Playlist. The songs playing on Aziza’s sound system are those she grew up listening to in Israel and mimic the bustle of restaurants in the city of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean coast.
Modern Israeli cuisine is “a melting pot,” she adds, so the playlist reflects a similar mix of cultures. When the restaurant opened in 2019, Baum personally selected between 50 and 70 songs covering a wide range of musical genres for Aziza. There are French, Arabic, and Hebrew songs woven into the playlist, as well as rap, pop, and electronica. She worked with sound design firm Gray V to create an algorithm-based playlist that works off of her initial picks. Every few months, Baum refreshes his list with new songs so that the playlist doesn’t become stale.
At Humble Mumble, chef Justin Dixon wants the restaurant to be a representation of Atlanta through food and music, but he also wants it to represent it. The songs he chooses for playlists are personal, embodying the music he listened to during his formative years, from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Outkast, is one of Dixon’s favorites, with their song “Humble Mumble” serving as the inspiration for the name of his pop-up. Then there’s Anita Baker, whom her mother adored, and the old-school funk her father always listened to when he was growing up. All of these musical influences appear on Dixon’s playlists, which are regularly posted on the Humble Mumble website.
“A lot of the biggest artists to come out of Atlanta are hip-hop and R&B artists,” says Dixon. “I feel like music has a place in the food scene here, and I don’t think it’s recognized enough in this city of the food world.”
Aligning music with a restaurant’s brand isn’t the only consideration. Owners can queue different songs based on location and time of day so the playlist complements, rather than distracts from, meal service.
If Dixon is hosting an intimate dinner party, for example, he’ll play songs with a lower frequency or slower pace. But if he shows up at a brewery, he makes sure the songs are high-energy and tries to match the length of the playlist to the length of the event. Dixon finds that 50 songs can hold a Humble Mumble pop-up between five and six hours. At his restaurant residency at the Collective at Coda food hall in Midtown, the lunchtime crowd arrives in waves, so Dixon queues up a versatile playlist of hundreds of songs spanning a range of genres for prevent it from repeating itself.
Rafael Pereira, who worked in the music industry before opening Brazilian restaurant and café Buteco in Grant Park, pays particular attention to songs played at specific times of the day. Although the Grant Park restaurant invites a regular rotation of DJs and musicians to perform live on the terrace each week, Pereira ensures that Buteco’s playlists are just as intentional.
“[Music] brings you back to a place, and it brings you back to a memory that you have,” Pereira says.
During the day, the music is softer and calmer to suit business meetings or teleworkers. At night, the sounds lean more towards funk and soul with Latin or South American roots. Pereira worked with Atlanta DJ Mike Zarin to develop a Brazilian playlist that serves as a springboard for the restaurant’s other soundtracks.
With curated playlists and a selection of vinyl to choose from in his Midtown restaurant, chef Craig Richards of Lyla Lila energizes diners by selecting different genres of music throughout the dinner service, while matching the musical mood to the casual chic space. It will start with jazz in the early evening to “warm everyone up”. The music could later shift to classic soul, new wave, upbeat indie, or electronic dance to boost the energy. Lyla Lila offers about 20 playlists, each consisting of 25 to 30 songs and lasting about an hour and a half to two hours.
“I want the music to be a visible part of the experience, to help elevate it and keep it from becoming overpowering,” says Richards. “I love having elements of fine dining at Lyla Lila, but the music keeps us from getting too uptight.”
Although music often evokes an emotional response, it can also influence how long people spend in a restaurant, how much they eat and how much they spend, according to research into the effects of music on shopping and the mood in restaurants. restaurants.
Design also plays a key role in how music affects the meal and the ambiance in a restaurant. Whether music enhances the space or simply adds noise to a restaurant depends heavily on reverberation time, or how long it takes for a room to dissipate a sound, says acoustician Zackery Belanger. If the dining room’s shape and materials don’t deliver sound fast enough – around 1.2 seconds is ideal – it can cause people to talk louder to each other. Eventually, understanding what people are saying becomes noticeably difficult.
“The more complex the room boundaries—the more complex the shape of their surface—generally, the better the room dissipation will be,” says Belanger, who founded acoustics studio Arcgeometer in Detroit. Flat, blank surfaces act like a mirror, reflecting and supporting sound rather than absorbing it. On the other hand, textures like books lining bookshelves, coffered ceilings, or wall sculptures can help spread sound faster.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving the right balance of music volume in a restaurant. In addition to the architecture and design of the dining room, other factors come into play, including the number of people in the restaurant, whether the restaurant has an open kitchen which adds to noise levels and how much the owner wants the dining room to be lively. be.
For Danny Song, co-owner of Gaja in East Atlanta Village, music is inseparable from the restaurant’s identity as a “Korean punk rock bar.” When Gaja first opened, there was a set of approved playlists for different hours of service and a rule that the restaurant avoid hits. This means that there are no songs from recognizable bands like the Ramones. In fact, Song says he hopes the guests don’t know the songs playing on the sound system most of the time.
“[Gaja] feels immersed, it feels secret, it feels alien,” Song says. And the fact that people may not know the lyrics to the songs and may not know the food, he adds, helps to transport diners even more.
Now all staff contribute to the soundtrack queue. But no matter who controls Gaja’s setlist, the songs always lean towards genres like power pop, garage rock and post-punk with songs from lesser-known bands.
Since Buteco staff members have ties to multiple countries, Pereira also lets her team help create playlists to keep them fresh and broaden the restaurant’s musical perspective. When Buteco books live performances on the terrace, playlists are always part of the experience. If it’s a samba party, the accompanying songs might include the Brazilian genres of forró or baile funk. If a particular musician is playing, Pereira can ask the artist to share a few songs they’ve been listening to recently to play on the PA system between sets.
“The staff jokes that I take [our playlists] too seriously sometimes, but I can’t help it,” says Pereira.