If the food is bad, you call for the chef. But what if the music is ‘off’?
When you choose a place to dine, it’s probably because of the quality and type of food, possibly the standard of service, the décor maybe or practical considerations such as catching the last bus home, not to mention the bill. It probably isn’t because of the music. And yet what you hear can make or break an enjoyable occasion. Isn’t well chosen music as vital an ingredient in a good meal out as fresh basil or the aroma of newly ground coffee? Somehow this isn’t quite acknowledged to be so.
A couple of days ago, I came back from a pleasant (though stubbornly grey skied) stay in north Devon. I travelled alone and therefore ate alone each evening, always something of a gamble as at busy restaurants, single diners can be made to feel unwelcome when they are effectively hogging a table for two and halving the takings. But I was made very welcome at – well, I’m not going to name the restaurant as the purpose of this piece is to illustrate a point not to name and shame. Suffice it to say, on two consecutive evenings I had a pleasant experience at this eatery – good food in agreeable surroundings, served by friendly staff. And on both evenings the music was a selection of pop hits from across the 60s which, although I’d be equally happy with no music at all, suited me just fine – in fact, I almost congratulated myself on a happy coincidence. The Hollies, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Mellow Yellow … a little predictable maybe but really fine. Silly me for being so smug. Because on the third day, the music was very different indeed.
My problem here is that I can’t tell you exactly what was being played except that it was mostly raucous, badly sung, thrashing guitar rock at a good few decibels higher than the nights before. And a very poor accompaniment to tenderly cooked French beans it was. In fact, guaranteed to induce indigestion, I would say. On a menu it might read thus: leg of mutton drumsticks served with roughly shredded vocals, tossed on a bed of guitares flambé.
Should I stay or should I go?
Having endured this for perhaps half an hour, I asked if I could sit away from the speaker positioned to my left shoulder and that was ‘no problem’ but the move seemed to only mildly reduce the aural onslaught.
As I hurriedly downed my mushroom risotto I could feel my hackles rising. What I had reasonably expected to be a pleasant evening in the manner of the first two had been entirely dashed thanks to an anonymous other’s arbitrary and careless selection of music.
I skipped dessert and expresso. As I asked for the bill, a ‘singer’ was yelling what sounded like ‘Ditch! Ditch! Diiiiiitch! DIIIIIITCCCHH!!!” with great fervour and I was quite baffled to see that there was not a flicker of disturbance on the faces of anyone present. Was it just me?
The waitress asked “Was everything OK?” and of course I replied breezily “Yes, fine thanks!” in true English, uncomplaining fashion. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t leave a tip which was very mean and not a little passive aggressive of me. It wasn’t the waitresses fault. And yet someone was responsible for the sonic desecration. If the food is bad you call for the chef. But what if it’s the music that is ‘off’?
Obviously it’s not the end of the world if, on one occasion, a single diner comes away offended by the particular choice of music in a restaurant. And I accept that the experience was amplified for me because of eating alone – everyone else looked too wrapped up in their conversations to really notice or care.
And yet I suspect similar scenes are being played out, even as I write, in restaurants across the land; at many you may find seated on a table alone a rather grumpy man (or woman) silently fuming into his (or her) cheese soufflé as a sweaty tenth rate Smashing Pumpkins wannabe lathers and slathers across the speakers.
The food of love
Why is so little thought given to music in public places? I recall an Indian meal in elegant surroundings accompanied by relentless techno. It’s actually impossible to enjoy food at 120bpm, believe me, I have tried. The techno presumably was designed to ensure high customer turnover (it worked). Perhaps worst of all is commercial radio. Who wants to be sold car insurance over a romantic dinner for two?
But my main gripe is with the unpredictability of it all, the element of ‘you takes your chances’ when that shouldn’t have to be the case. A restaurant wouldn’t switch from providing cordon bleu one evening to chicken nuggets the next so why an abrupt change in music?
Restaurants by law have to display priced menus outside for the benefit of prospective diners yet it is only upon venturing inside that you hear what is set to caress or pummel your eardrums for the next couple of hours. And by then, it already feels somehow too late to about turn. If the music was live, you could peek through windows to see a string quartet or perhaps a flamenco guitarist and know what is to greet you and that might well inform your decision as to whether to step inside or move on. But when the music is invisible there is simply no way of knowing.
Some good came out of it all. The next night, my last, I discovered a gem of a place – and I am going to name this one – ‘The Vanilla Pod’ in Lynton – delicious Moroccan/Middle Eastern inspired food in intimate, congenial surroundings and yes, the music was good too. It enhanced the atmosphere rather than destroyed it. Someone had shown a little care. And that’s all we ask. Isn’t it?