Taste in music: meet the people curating London's best restaurant playlists
The right set of tunes can elevate a restaurant experience. We meets those responsible for setting the perfect vibe
- By Victoria Stewart -
It's a shame when you remember a restaurant for the wrong reasons – that time when you finally got into a great-sounding new place, where the food was really great and the staff were absolutely ace, but you can't remember much of the conversation because you spent most of it watching your friend's mouth move through a blur of doofing bass. But then there was the time that you picked up an average latte from a coffee shop that immediately went right back in your good books by playing the first song that you ever bought.
When a bar or restaurant gets the tone wrong, where the music is so loud – or so bad – that it puts you off ever coming back, you probably tell your friends about it. In fact, it's often harder to remember the good ones. In London, there are a few places in particular that get it really right – here's how they do it.
Who: Mikey Vettraino is a DJ at Is Fradis Beach Club in Cala Sinzias, Sardinia and founder of Mav Music, which makes playlists for restaurant chains such as Wagamama, Soho House group, and restaurants including Temper and Frenchie. Rob Wood of Music Concierge is a DJ and former music journalist who has worked with Burberry and restaurants including Merchants Tavern and Dishoom.
How it works: Both Vettraino and Wood agree the brief is an "essential" part of what they do, as each client will request something different, but in every case they visit the venue at different trading times and tailor their mixes accordingly. "Some clients know exactly what they want and just need us to get the best music together within those boundaries," says Vettraino, before describing that others have less of an idea of what might work.
Both say that good music is a central part of creating atmosphere or the reflection of a brand, and their approaches are similar: Vettraino believes the ideal situation is to have customers "asking staff what song is playing" and "leaving having had a great time with new music that they love. It's that difference between staying for one more drink and going home." Wood says it's a "balancing act, because we don't want the music to be intrusive in conversation – we just want to set the scene and put people in a great mood so that they spend as much time as possible here.
Music impacts people in a lot of different ways emotionally, but also physiologically, as it can stimulate us or slow us down.
So if some restaurants are trying to turn tables they'll consider [more energetic] music, whereas if you're trying to encourage a five-course meal you might want to slow it down." Vettraino says the biggest difference between DJing live and working with restaurants is that with the former, "you can see the crowd in front of you and gauge their reaction, making it easy to respond to what is and isn't working," whereas once a music player is installed in a restaurant the venue staff are "our eyes and ears, letting us know what is popular and what isn't." For Wood, the key thing is "understanding how music affects people and how to engage people with music – that's definitely linked to a set of skills that a DJ might have."
Who else: Jim Woods at Eight Track has consulted for the Feng Sushi chain, as well as Grain Store in King's Cross and bars owned by Tony Conigliaro.
The DJ founders
Who: The coffee chain Grind & Co is owned by David Abrahmovitch and Australian DJ Kaz James, who turned the space above their original Shoreditch café into a recording studio. James's friends FKA Twigs, Hurts, Pixie Lott, Idris Elba and Years & Years have each recorded here and in return made playlists for the cafés.
How it works: "We don't take it very seriously – most people who record we invite in, so very little money ever actually changes hands – it's very much done on a friends-of-friends basis," explains Grind's creative director Ted Robinson. "A lot of artists do stuff on their own or with their labels, and actually sometimes want to come here just to work on something a bit more chilled. Whenever anyone's there for any period of time, they'll often come down, then we might ask if they'd mind doing us a playlist."
Previously Grind's team would set out music for certain times of the day before they realised they had "this amazing resource of playlists that people had actually already done… Our sites are open as coffee shops and then later for dinner, so quite often a DJ might do something more evening-appropriate to go in our Clerkenwell Club Bar, which is open until 2am, but mostly we're pretty flexible. I think even if someone had tried to manufacture this idea, they probably wouldn't have managed to get the same sort of response," laughs Robinson.
Who else: Carl Clarke of fried chicken restaurants Chick 'n' Sours is a DJ and chef whose, music career included a stint at Turnmills. He plays a 'punk-rock chic' playlist – a mix of reggae, dub, electronic, underground eighties music, hip-hop and electro house – depending on the time of day. Layo Paskin, creative director of Israeli restaurants The Barbary and The Palomar, is a former DJ who ensures there's a lively selection of music during service.
The music-loving owners
Who: Laura Harper-Hinton, co-founder of Caravan restaurants, curates playlists, often including lesser-known tracks, B-sides and world music she's discovered on her travels.
How it works: Music has always been an important part of creating the right atmosphere, according to Harper-Hinton, who, as well as making her own playlists, often asks "key staff, who have awesome taste in music" to make them for Caravan. "That's great as they feel invested in the music too, and help me by letting me know when a track might not be working for the time of day – or has become particularly annoying for them!"
As for programming, Harper-Hinton fills five playlists with rotating tracks for the various different trading times, picked using specific criteria. "For us it has to have a beat and be uplifting, and give momentum and energy to the room – even if it's a more chilled song for the morning or afternoon. Another key thing for us is that the songs are not too obvious. We want people to be tapping their feet or feeling uplifted subliminally and enjoying their food and chatting away, rather than singing the lyrics to their friends – the exception is weekend brunch, where we loosen things up a bit."
Who else: Pizza Pilgrims co-founder Thom Elliot also does his own, setting out "to avoid any repeats so that the staff don't go mad" and choosing "lots of hits or songs you haven't heard in a while", including tunes from Oasis, Madonna and Gabrielle. Eran Tibi, owner of Bala Baya, intended to be a DJ before becoming a chef. He creates lists of tunes on Spotify, "ramping it up at weekends." Music is key at Bone Daddies' Japanese restaurants, too, where owner Ross Shonhan asks that all playlists have "rock 'n' roll from at least 20 years ago".
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