Chef and Music Freak Andrew Carmellini on what Makes a Great Restaurant Soundtrack
Beware the “shuffle” button! I create playlists for all my restaurants. Maybe I’m a control freak, but I love the process. If I have 100 things to do, “Make soundtracks” is the one I’ll jump to first. (Right after “Test these four pasta recipes.”) At each place, it’s the same list every night, in order. So I know it’s 9:45 when Broken Bells comes on at the Dutch ($$$). Playlists are a progression—you want the music to unfold throughout the night, in terms of genres, BPM (beats per minute), the mood you set.
When the restaurant’s full, you shouldn’t really “hear” the music. You’ll know it’s there, but it won’t take over. Then again, if the room is too quiet—you hear waitstaff gossiping, glasses being cleaned—that’s distracting as well. Music fills that sonic space. It actually helps you focus on your conversation. But no 14-minute cuts! It’s annoying when a song is droning on and on while you’re waiting for dessert. You need a fresh track every three to four minutes.
Don’t be afraid to counterprogram. When we opened Locanda Verde ($$$), people asked, “Why don’t I hear Frank Sinatra?” Maybe they figured, Robert De Niro’s a partner, it’ll have this red-sauce, Louis Prima vibe. Instead we’re playing “Hip Hop” by Dead Prez. But when that bass line came on, people were like, “Oh, yeah!” Now we’re opening Bar Primi ($$), in the East Village, which is all about house-made pasta, so for the soundtrack I’m thinking deep soul. I’ve been digging into MixCloud and finding these great obscure tracks. I like playing songs that got turned into hip-hop samples. I’d probably never play “My Name Is” by Eminem, but everyone knows those eight bars of Labi Siffre’s “I Got the...” People are like, “Wait, I know that tune,” but it’s not quite what they think it is.
Silence can also work. I went to La Grenouille ($$$$) for my birthday. It was awesome—and there was no music playing. It’d be weird if there were music at La Grenouille! Personally, I don’t want to spend $400 on dinner and be pummeled by “When the Levee Breaks” (although I do love Led Zeppelin). As a rule, I stay away from classic rock on my playlists. I grew up with that music—I can play all those songs on guitar—so they’re no longer fresh to me.
Give the people what they want—occasionally. I’ve changed my philosophy on this. I used to resist playing “hits,” like a No Doubt or Smiths song. But you realize, that’s when people go, “Omigod, I love this song!” and start bouncing along. In the end, you want guests to be happy. So I’ll put a few Easter eggs in the mix. Building a playlist is like building a menu: you can have your obscure, challenging things, but you also need some crowd-pleasers, some lighter stuff. It can’t be all sweetbreads and headcheese.
—As told to Peter Jon Lindberg
Andrew Carmellini’s Friday-night top 10
Kooley Is High:
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150