s and y joint ’s a c n a F e “A” so it r Grad the big city, n — o f 1 1 20 in tta nd new outside here ith a Manha a r b a to ld it pw elcome ents. It’s co et’s warm u ’ll even take w of d n a L we hange c e b a Hello, p entertainm r delights. y r a o st f dm o -u lly, an brandy — ju y indo a o r j grown u n t e a o et rs, n with ﬁne tim hake of bitte ing the r ye is? s th lac in? a hefty in-style, rep what’s at aga t h u t B y . s a .) S stand Wiscon s song i under h u t all the o e h y t t , i a e h w c I t a , p a wha awd ent of ating, y? (G c m i r y r n o o j u S n Huh? e comm iate in the e xtra provid l ? b t u a o h r W le e xur tle t on ly to lu e unavoidab issue. Pard ng a lit i p v m a i h s n s s s we’re want i sister t of thi ere is o It seem here. All we too often t h is the subjec cle from our n cranky at rti But a h e t h . s l i t d a h n n t e noise i a w ge or m restaurant we imported e to tone do r s ; bevera i o y t r m e pro he ba le ran ed by t seems a litt n a Twist. W is si us if th on, Knicker ati public e. m next ti
idway through a delightful dinner at Gene’s in the Village, I stopped cold and looked around the room. Why was I extra-relaxed and contented? The food was good, the room cozy and neighborhoody, the service white-tablecloth attentive. The wine was just making our acquaintance. Yet there was something else, something extraordinary, something shock ingly luxurious. I became conscious of an absence. There was no recorded music, no radio, no television. The sound of ice tinkling in a glass — once so evocative it was a staple of sound effects records, TV commercials and film soundtracks — is heard only rarely over the din in restaurants nowadays. A champagne cork screaming, “I’m FAB-u-lous!” is also deprived of an audience. You will not hear the bubbly hubbub of pleased diners, and you can forget about overhearing choice kook bar conversation when there is a blaring racket. Canned music blocks out all the festive sounds of the dining experience. Recorded music, or TV, or both at once in peculiar disharmony, has become the norm. One reason we shy away from new restaurants is they almost always have the loudest screaming foreground music.
Frankly, most of it is stuff we loathe anyway; it‘s nothing we’d ever listen to unless forced as prisoners of war. And unless you’re a teenager, or pretending to be one, you probably don’t need to drink and dine to rock/ rap/dance music. Oh, yes, we are too old, but some of the swill they are polluting our ears with are the very same songs we hated when we were young. Call me optimistic, but when the 1970’s ended (finally, I think around 1985), I thought, well, at least I won’t have to hear Styx or Bread or Carly Simon anymore. Wrong. Now flaccid California Rock and AOR are apparently universal favorites. Fashion runway disco is everyone’s choice for dining enjoyment? Rap jabber? Mopey, hippie chick self-indulgence? We are not all the same person, nor do we all like or hate the same music. Restaurants give us abundant choices of food and drink, but they never ask what we would like to hear. I remember a first and last dinner at one of those West-Village-goes-New England lobster roll joints, an adorably studied version of a coastal sandwich shop that wound up looking more like the set of a Ralph Lauren ad shoot. It was unpleasant from the first, crushed into picnic tables, jostled and bumped by wait staff and fellow diners. The food was okay, I think. Then they put on a Madonna record. We rushed to finish up and left as soon as possible, me thinking, Why on earth would I want to listen to Madonna? Yes, we know, the music is supposed to be there for our own good. It is supposed to make a restaurant seem lively and full, and it is a whiz at blanketing kitchen clatter. But what about when it elbows in and bullies your evening? Who invited Billy Joel to your table, anyway, and who told him to bring his friends? Yes, the music is setting the mood, but too often that mood is not far from the put-on sounds of Macy’s Junior Department, a cacophony of calculated cool. It is not surprising that America’s fear of younglessness has infested restaurants and bars. The rampant party atmosphere is forced. When I was a twentynothing I didn’t think for a minute that restaurants should emulate my hangouts nor cater to one particular age group. Even when the volume is very low you may be tortured by that tinny generic chik-a-chik muffled beat like the iPod runoff from the joker next to you on the subway, and before you know it you find your nails digging into
your house-made rosemary breadstick. And when the music is cranked up people naturally raise their voices to talk over the noise. Then their neighbors follow suit, and so on, until all the people in the pretty little restaurant are screaming like it’s Spring Break. Loud and annoying music is a recurring complaint on Chowhound.com and in news articles but restaurateurs continue to give it the tin ear. It seems like few of them are interested in pleasing a variety of customers. Today’s eateries are all after the same target clientele: the trendy young money, whom we’ll call the Vodka Lobby. Almost every new room is created from the same cookie-cutter for the ideal youthful nightlife consumer that it is assumed we all aspire to be. That is a blunder, we think, because we all know the capricious VL always trots on forever chasing the next hot spot. You can’t be the current thing forever. How many spots have you been to where you are sure the music is there solely for the staff’s enjoyment? In fact, the diner is barely tolerated, as if she’s a nerdy fan who wants to suck up to a celebrity: the customer should be in awe of the bartender, cower before the waitstaff, and shiver like a teenager at the mention of the cook’s name. Prime examples of this masochistic fad are David Chang and Mario Batali and their ever-expanding empire of places that serve interesting food with a side order of the most dismal Classic Rock played at an ear-shattering volume. Maybe they think they are creating a delightfully casual atmosphere by forcing banal musical tripe on those who want to taste their food, but it strikes us that they are being selfish twitwads just because they can. We at Grade “A” Fancy are no strangers to loud music. We have spent a pleasantly unhealthy portion of our lives in music clubs and bars, digging the sounds. Do we want to eat in a throbbing nightclub? Not on your life! A patron of the agreeably music-free Billy’s (R.I.P.) on First Avenue once explained to her waiter, “I love music. I know where to find music. I’m here to eat.” I am well aware that a large chunk of my musical taste would not suit the diversity of humans who must eat each day, and I would never inflict it on paying customers. (Sparks with your field greens! Hazil Adkins with your foie gras! Screamin’ Jay Hawkins with your grass-fed veal. Redd Kross with your deconstructed blue popsicle macerated in Thai chili
vodka. Look how cool I am!) State-of-the-art is custom programming, and it’s sometimes clever, sometimes show-offy know-it-all music nerdy, but really, so what? And for that matter, do you need to open a restaurant to broadcast your incredible musical taste? Spare me your grooviness. I want dinner. Imbedded noise is so universal that when a restaurant is equipped with the drearily predictable Ella Fitzgerald-Frank Sinatra-Edith Piaf packet of officially sanctioned sophisticated classics we yawn, and then breathe a sigh of relief. Relief that it’s not music we despise. But it is still canned sound and it can still be disruptive. When speakers are absent the improvement is dazzling. It’s like the sweet moment at the beach right after some lug with a radio departs. You are not just free of his musical taste, such as it is, but now you can hear the surf and the gulls. Wanting to be free of canned noise isn‘t necessarily wanting total silence, it is about having the opportunity to hear things besides the hits of the Seventies, Eighties and today. It is the sameness that is most tiresome. The hospitality biz — which is what the restaurant industry is supposed to be, after all — is ferociously competitive. Still, like a duped child who believes she will grow up to be a princess, each new joint presumes it can be the next special place in a city of overabundance. Like a lot of lemmings they saturate the atmosphere with loud, boring canned music, just like everywhere else. Why not attempt a soupçon of niche marketing? Instead of competing with each other, compete from one another. Somebody please open a place that concentrates on the food and the service without the bells and whistles of a distracting soundtrack. Real bells and whistles would make a change at least. Vive la difference! Naturally, dahlink, you can buy your way out. The lowest-volume spots are ninety-nine times out of one hundred the highest tier in price. La Grenouille — silent! Twenty-one — nada! We can hope that a coming trend could be some joints will try to ape the sophistication of these grownup establishments. Don’t even start me on deejays.
verybody knows what Muzak is: bland background music. The worst possible example of an art form, it is supposed to reside below the level of consciousness and never requires any notice from anybody. Like sonic wallpaper it creates a homogeneous environment that we can easily ignore. It is boring and tune-out-able by design. In some cases, however, that can be impossible. My ﬁrst job was stock boy in a hardware store. They pumped Muzak through the store via the intercom system. That meant if I was hiding out in a stockroom pricing screwdrivers, or more probably gooﬁng off, I couldn’t get rid of the Muzak without turning off the intercom possibly missing the boss barking for me to run some errand, thereby landing me in hot water. I hated the syrupy goo oozing out of the speakers with a passion only possible at sixteen years of age. The injustice of being forced to listen to this was driven home with hideous irony whenever they gave a pop song I actually liked the treatment. The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” was easy enough on my ears in the original version; it didn’t need thirty more strings and a woodwind section. But those were rare exceptions. When they stayed away from music I enjoyed I was simply bored. That seemed like an inexcusable assault to me back then. Nowadays I would welcome some drippy elevator music as a relaxing alternative to the pounding dance-sludge (which is at least as insipid) I’m subjected to in restaurants and shops. As it happens, Muzak is perfect for a restaurant. The problems that music in a restaurant is supposed to solve are really best served by this antique notion of “mood music.” It ﬁlls an empty room with sound and gentle rhythm with no worries that you might start to eat to the beat, since you would have a hard time ﬁnding one. There are no vocals to distract you from
your conversation or, if the food happens to be why you are there, your plate. And you can’t have any involuntary TMZ reaction, where you reﬂexively recall every unappetizThey ing bit of gossip about some mutant pop star you cer t ainhate when you hear their song, because the ly perfected symphonic arrangement is so unfamiliar the idea of backit may take until the tune is over to ground music. Over even recall its title. And yet, the years Muzak has so although it is a possible solusuccessfully marketed the tion, Muzak may be the beneﬁts of music in a commercial origin of the probsetting that it now seems unthinkable, lem of music or at least radical, to open any kind of shop, in restaubar or restaurant without a sound system. rants. One tiny sticking point prevents background music from being an answer to this problem: it currently doesn’t exist. Not even the good folks at Muzak make background music anymore. At one time every piece of music they programmed was produced in house. The selections were current hits, and they often used top name orchestras, but the sound was carefully controlled to ensure a uniform product. It was music you could hear, but not listen to, strictly inoffensive applesauce for the ears. Now Muzak has come to resemble the satellite radio biz. They provide mixes of music by original artists to create a “branded audio environment” to suit a client’s needs. In a less jargon-y nutshell, they sell boutique lines of foreground music, rather than background music. One of the many reasons we love Neary’s on East 57th Street is it is one of the last places in New York where you can still ﬁnd that classic elevator music. It usually tends to big, slow, soppy arrangements of Broadway show tunes or pop hits of the Sixties and Seventies. Sometimes, when there is a lull in the quiet babble of bar conversation, and I gradually become aware that I’ve been tapping my toe to a full-blown symphonic treatment of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” I imagine the scorn my teenage self would be heaping on me. Maybe I deserve it. But that kid never had to deal with the effect of Lady Gaga at ear bleeding volume on my digestion.
S U S
Bamonte’s 32 Withers Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn Barbetta 321 West 46th Street Fanelli Café 94 Prince Street Gene’s 73 West 11th Street (dining room) La Grenouille 3 East 52nd Street Frankie & Johnnie’s 269 West 45th Street Gallagher’s 228 West 52nd Street (except live jazz TH-SA 9-12) Grand Central Oyster Bar Grand Central Station 89 East 42nd Street (dining room) Peter Luger Steak House 178 Broadway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn McSorley’s Old Ale House 15 East 7th Street Sardi’s 234 West 44th Street (downstairs bar only)