John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Restaurants in San Francisco are adding music to the list of nightly menus they produce for patrons.
Walk into several popular restaurants in San Francisco and you can pick up not only food and wine menus, but a song menu. Printed in throwback-typewriter font on brown cards, these playlists note the albums the restaurant will spin as you slurp your squid-ink chitarra.
I nabbed one of these DJ menus from the hostess stand during a recent meal at Mission District Italian joint Flour + Water. It informed me that "Tonight's Playlist," titled "Acid Washed," included offerings from Built to Spill's "You in Reverse," Blonde Redhead's "23," and Modest Mouse's "We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank." There was also The Smiths' "The Queen Is Dead," which I remember thinking could put a damper on the evening.
My mind swirled with questions. Is this a sign the restaurant industry has finally lost its mind over sourcing? Must we now know the chanterelles in our vegetable hash originated in the dark wilds of Oregon's Tillamook forest, but also that the music in our ears was handcrafted by Canadian indie-rockers Born Ruffians?
And, is the person compiling these playlists attempting a feat of synesthesia—the mixing of sound and taste? Does a peppy tune from Spoon's "Kill the Moonlight," for instance, somehow enhance the tangy-tomato flavor of Neapolitan-style pizza? And, do the beats get slower and more reflective as the hours and wine buzzes mature? Is the last song of the night always something really obnoxious, like "My Humps," to drive away mulish diners who insist on staying past closing time?
The answer to that last question, at least, is a resounding "no"; the restaurant tries to avoid causing aural friction with its customers. "Part of the process of making a playlist is making sure there's no really depressing song," says Megan Mayer, an operations assistant at the restaurant group that owns Flour + Water, Ne Timeas. "You know, like a 10-minute violin solo or something that will stand out and be awkward."
The song menus were launched about five years ago by one of the restaurant group's financiers, David Steele, also a partner in the indie music-fest organizer Noise Pop. Since then, they've fallen into the hands of informal "music directors" like Mayer, who try to whip up weekly playlists for the company's handful of eateries. These dining DJs adhere to the strict philosophy of only playing complete albums. "We really want to focus on the flow of energy throughout the night," says Mayer. "The whole-album concept focuses on the artist and not the song, and just creates a better listening environment."
The fruits of the music directors' disc-digging are posted on a WordPress blog. There's "Court the Storm," a foul-weather playlist devoted to "some heavy drizzles coming our way" with an Ian Curtis/David Bowie project and, again, The Smiths, and the Halloween-themed "Friendly Ghost" with Wolf Parade, Darkside, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. (All these are playable on Spotify.) There's also an interview with one of the music directors about the rationale behind this endeavor:
We're providing an experience. The food, the atmosphere, the people; it's all a curated experience provided by central kitchen [or salumeria, or flour + water]—but it's heightened by music that makes you feel good & conjures up good memories. & music that feels really fresh. and hopefully listening to a song is going to remind you of that moment you had in one of the restaurants.
Mayer says she's not aware of any other Bay Area restaurants that print song menus. And that's surprising, because without a well-structured music program a restaurant could be depriving diners of a crucial facet of eating out, says Kate Michels, director of sales and marketing for Ne Timeas.
"We want to feature whole albums on the playlists to create a flow throughout the night, matching the volume in the restaurant itself," Michels emails. "The focus of the music program is not only to add to this but to make it a complete sensory experience."