I keep a mental list of simple questions for when people come in search of restaurant recommendations. Until recently, it began with "What do you like to eat?" – nobody ever thinks to tell you that – and "How much do you want to spend?" and ended with "What part of town would you prefer?" In the last couple of years, though, another question has bullied its way onto that list and up to its top, a question of increasingly urgent importance. "What kind of music do you like?" I find myself replying. It's one of the first things I now ask.
If you like new jack swing and 1990s novelty rap, I've got a Taiwanese snack bar you may be interested in, or if you're more into Delta swamp rock with a side of thumping chickenass twang, I hope you're all right with pickled green tomatoes and apple-smoked catfish rolls. I know the perfect spot for fans of the Notorious B.I.G., but just the obvious hits, mostly, played through tinny speakers at deafening volumes (with excellent jerk chicken chow mein and Red Stripe), and another place you'll love if you're more into smartly curated hip-hop deep cuts (and whole-fried Japanese eggplant) and you aren't opposed to waiting in a line.
For well-chosen indie pop, you might want to head to the Black Hoof or Momofuku. For a whole lot of Prince, but with dips into Afrobeat and reggae, classic Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel on vinyl, Saturday Dinette is going to be your speed.
And for all the lovers out there of swinging Gypsy jazz from the prewar era, I have some very good news: Have you been to Bar Isabel early in the evening? I'll assume you have an appetite for whole-grilled octopi and Idiazabal cheese.
It seems quaint to remember the time when people referred to the music in restaurants as "background music." When I started out in the business, first as a busboy, then as a waiter, restaurants blared their sound systems until 15 or 20 minutes before service and then turned them down in time for the early birds. But restaurants have become the new bars and nightclubs. As often as not, the volume doesn't go down just before service, but up.
Blame demographics (the big-spending masses are younger now and like their music) and economics (many restaurateurs have less to spend on renos and decor and so overcompensate with the tunes).
Blame technology and the rise of free, digital music, and the ease of compiling 30-hour iPod playlists, and the ascent of such music-streaming services as Rdio and Songza, with their "curated" playlists named "'90s Neon Bikini Party" and "Midnight Slow Jams." Blame the Black Hoof's Jen Agg, who was perhaps the first in the city to crank an excellent restaurant's sound system. And you might also blame the high-end music-curation firms – Toronto's The Playlist Company among them, with some 100 restaurant clients around the city – for bringing music out of the background and into the fore.
Ian McGrenaghan was among Toronto's early louder-is-better adopters, at Grand Electric, the popular Parkdale taco shop he co-owns with the chef Colin Tooke. "We played loud hip hop literally because we liked hip hop and we were both exhausted from working 16-hour days, so we played it loud to keep us energized," he said recently. "And we looked out into the restaurant and saw it connected."
That music has become a part of Grand Electric's DNA; if you like loud hip hop, you'll probably like it at Grand Electric, and if you don't, you're better off staying far away. While there's some self-selection at play, Mr. McGrenaghan is convinced that underground cuts from the golden age of hip hop can lighten a room, and that they pair well with Grand Electric's cooking – Mr. McGrenaghan has seen babies nodding their heads to Tupac during Tuesday lunch service, he said. "Even if you don't know what you're listening to, it's got this rhythmic energy that really gets into you."
For what it's worth, the music there isn't as loud these days as it once was. "My business partner and I are getting old," he said.
The Black Hoof's Jen Agg obsesses over her playlists, she said, so that they ramp up at 7:30 p.m. as the crowds arrive and their energy climbs until around 11:30 p.m., when it's time to wind the music down. "When you put on a great song, you can see people slide into it in subtle ways. You can see them relax," she said. "You can fix 90 per cent of the problems in a restaurant by turning the music up and turning the lights down."
Next door, at modern Haitian spot Rhum Corner, Agg's husband Roland Jean often DJs from an iPod, with a perpetual-motion stream of kompa, zouk and rara songs, almost all of them from live recordings, because he likes the energy that live performances bring. "The cool thing about that room is that it's less than 40 per cent white people in there, and it's the cool kids," Ms. Agg said. With a different type of music, it would be an entirely different place.
Music has become so central to the experience at many spots that it's often one of the first things to come up in planning and design. At Bar Raval, partners Grant van Gameren, Mike Webster and Robin Goodfellow are such die-hard Wu-Tang Clan fans that they had the Wu-Tang logo laser-cut into the bar area's drip trays. Even restaurateurs who don't have strong feelings about music now know that they ignore their playlists at their peril.
“Whether you like it or not, once the bar is raised, as a business owner you’re forced to respond,” Mr. McGrenaghan said.
For some of them, that means hitting the play button on an Internet-based service like Songza, which to my mind is a little like ordering your meat and fish from Sysco or Wal-Mart – it’s cheap and easy but never all that great. “Restaurants try to distinguish themselves by saying how much they pay attention to detail,” said a friend and frequent dining companion, who recently moved here from the United States. “This is the ultimate phoning it in.” With increasing frequency, they phone it in by pushing play on prefab compilations of the new, crowd-pleasing golden oldies: classic hip hop, but with the rough edges sanded off.
“Toronto is really into this nostalgic nineties throwback but it never digs deep into the crate to find the treasures of the nineties – it just plays the most stupid, played-out songs,” that friend added. (Among her scorn’s most frequent targets: Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back and Shock G’s The Humpty Dance.)
“Programming music soundtracks is the same as making food: sourcing what’s great and then making it come together in an artful way,” said Dali Bikich, managing director at The Playlist Company. Mr. Bikich and his partner Paul Azevedo have about 100 restaurant clients around the city, including the Oliver & Bonacini group, the King Street Food Company (that includes the Buca spots as well as the upcoming Jamie’s Italian roll-out), Grant van Gameren’s Bar Isabel and Bar Raval, and the four-star Alo.
Alo’s general manager, Amanda Bradley, still remembers the days when restaurants kept a stack of CDs next to the stereo and played them over and over – on shuffle if you were lucky. Of one job in France, she complained, “Every day for nine months we listened to the same Jack Johnson CD. In a Michelin-starred restaurant. And people loved it.” The staff, though, not so much.
The Playlist Company’s process typically begins well before a restaurant opens, when the partners get involved in acoustic design and speaker placement. At Alo, for instance, they installed sound-absorbing panels around the room and created four separate “zones” with independent volume settings. (The music there blends classic rock, jazz and hip hop, never lingering too long on any one genre. “We don’t want it to be the first thing people notice when they walk in,” Ms. Bradley said.) At Bar Raval they hid a subwoofer inside the elaborate woodwork of the bar.
To create playlists, the company then consults intensively with a restaurant’s principal players. “We ask a million questions: cultural and design influences, the character of the players, what sort of experience they want to create,” said Mr. Bikich. From that point they put together sample lists, and then refine them further over listening sessions with the clients.
This sort of custom curation costs restaurants between $200 and $400 per month on average, compared to less than $20 for an off-the-shelf Internet streaming service. But The Playlist Company doesn’t lose a lot of clients, Mr. Bikich said. “We’re the guys who provide programming when you need something a little off the beaten path.”
Suzanne Barr, the owner of Saturday Dinette, on the east side, took the polar-opposite approach when she opened the place last year – an approach that’s labour-intensive but becoming more common around town. Saturday Dinette keeps a turntable and a shelf of vinyl in pride of place behind its bar, and has staff pull three records each before every service. Ms. Barr’s husband, Johnnie Karas, even DJs many nights, in between running food orders. (People’s Eatery, on Spadina, hires pro DJs to run the music during the week, as does the Drake One Fifty some nights. The other Drake, meanwhile – the platinum-selling one – was recently found DJing a set at Fring’s, the spot on King Street West that he recently opened with Susur Lee.) Saturday Dinette’s local record shop keeps Ms. Barr on speed dial; they have a deal so that the owner gives them first dibs on anything great that comes in.
“It’s so easy just to put on Songza or Pandora and let it run its course, but to put on some vinyl …” Ms. Barr said. The vinyl lends the place an added measure of genuineness. In an era of Slow Food and Slow Wine, maybe it’s time Slow Music began to take hold.
Ms. Barr likes to play classic Aretha Franklin or New Edition if the room’s vibe is too sleepy, she said, and if the staff are too busy running food to get to the turntable every few minutes, they’ll put on some Fela Kuti, because the tracks are so long.
If customers ever look impatient, Ms. Barr will try to judge their demographic and put on something age-appropriate. (Like Ms. Agg, Ms. Barr once worked as a DJ; she knows how to read a room.) “Oh my God, I haven’t heard that song since I was 15!” they’ll often say. Music, as she puts it, is the perfect way “to tame the beast.”
It’s tricky, of course. Another place I ate at recently also had a turntable, which worked well when they played Serge Gainsbourg and Breakfast in America (sue me: I happen to quite like Supertramp), but not so well when sides A and B of ABBA: Gold came on.
But the times I’ve been at Saturday Dinette, the music has somehow been exactly right. They even let their customers bring their own vinyl. Every few weeks or so, somebody will walk in with a record under their arm and a sheepish grin. “We haven’t had to refuse to play anything yet,” Ms. Barr said.