Earlier this month, anti-noise campaigners Pipedown called for a ban on music in restaurants. That’s ALL music in ALL restaurants. They believe that the enjoyment of a nice meal can be severely marred or even ruined by the mellifluous strains of Acker Bilk or the mellow rhythms of Chet Faker. (Well, I suppose they’d have a point with Acker Bilk.) Pipedown cite “getting the order wrong” and “missing the punch line to a joke” as two of the catastrophes that might befall diners in a restaurant that plays music. Joanna Lumley is a supporter. If you are too, and you hate listening to music while you eat, they suggest going straight to the top by encouraging strongly-worded letters to CEOs of large organisations, and they advocate leaving stinking reviews on Trip Advisor if a hotel or restaurant plays music (because, clearly, there isn’t enough whingeing on there already.)
Now, call me eccentric, but if I go to a restaurant and I don’t like an aspect of what it does, I just don’t go back. I wouldn’t start a campaign to change the colour of the walls, or to improve the brand of liquid soap used in the loos, or to lobby for different crockery, cutlery or glassware. I’d just enjoy what’s important (food, wine, service, company) and if something really jarred, I’d choose to go somewhere else next time. No biggie. Trying to change such a fundamental part of a business is simply choosing battles that really don’t need to be fought. It’d be like going into Primark and complaining that they don’t sell Marks & Spencer underwear.
But when it comes to music in restaurants, I actually quite like it. I’m not talking about muzak, that nasty background mush that normally consists of popular tunes played by easy-listening orchestras, made famous in elevators the world over in the 1960s. I’m talking about intelligently put-together playlists that add to the dining experience, bring a little of the atmosphere of a good party, and have diners getting up out of their seats with their iPhones to Shazam next to the speakers in order to find out what that great track is. And with good music, it really is all or nothing. There is no point keeping the volume so low that no one can identify the band or the song – you may as well have opted for heinous wallpaper muzak after all.
I once gave a talk at a literary festival and spoke for 40 minutes on the London restaurant scene, its challenges, emerging trends and future predictions. There was a Q&A afterwards and, I’m not kidding, all the audience wanted to know was “why couldn’t restaurants get more comfortable chairs?” and “what do you do if someone at a neighbouring table is laughing too loudly?” Some people are determined to dislike their experience even before they leave the house to set off for the restaurant.
But, as they say, be careful what you wish for: You might just get it. I went to a new barbecue restaurant recently where the heavily-inked chef, looking more like the lead guitarist in Williamsburg punk band than a cook, swung, chopped, sauced and grilled his way through service, right in front of you (a sort-of meaty, hipster teppanyaki). The food was fantastic and the experience exhilarating, if slightly exhausting. But the music! Oh my god, the music. I’m not exaggerating when I say the vibrations from the speakers made the forks move across the table and the water in our glasses ripple. Conversation was conducted in bellows and clumsy sign language and my ears were ringing for a good few hours after the meal. On the way out, the charming female host (who turned out to be the rock ‘n’ roll chef’s girlfriend) asked if everything had been OK. I said that it had been excellent, in fact, but that the heavy metal playlist had been turned up to ear-bleeding levels. “Oh, we like the music very loud in here,” she said. “It keeps the old people away.”
Russell will be appearing at this year’s Port Eliot Festival.