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May 6, 2008

Shoot the piano player

PX00073_9.jpgLynn sent me the following e-mail on a subject I know nothing about, but would like to learn more: background music in restaurants. I'm sort of on the fence about the whole thing. If it's a really serious restaurant, it always strikes me as odd to have any music playing, I'm not sure why.

If it's a really loud restaurant anyway, background music just makes everyone talk louder to be heard over it, and you can't hear it anyway.

But if it's the right music for the right restaurant, it's great.

Here's her e-mail: ... 

I was wondering if you knew how restaurants pick the background music in their dining areas?  We went to Junior's Wine Bar in Federal Hill for dinner on Saturday night and the background soundtrack was really distracting and seemingly out of character.  Not wanting to offend anyone who enjoys Air Supply and REO Speedwagon, but I could think of many other types of music that would blend nicely into the background and the atmosphere.  Is it because REO Speedwagon comes at a cheaper price than jazz music or something along those lines?  If nothing else, commenting on the choice of music resulted in some amusing dinner conversation.


(Elizabeth Malby/Sun photographer) 

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 10:41 AM | | Comments (27)


I guess you can imagine by my moniker what some of my past gigs have been. Yes, I have been a restaurant musician. But let me go on record as saying that loud recorded music is a dining establishment is obnoxious - not to mention potentially in violation of copyright laws unless the establishment holds a license. On the other hand, the smooth, light jazz renditions at the Prime Rib serve as a lovely, seductive underscore to the dining experience.

I would be frightened to patronize a place that pairs REO Speedwagon with Air Supply. What's next - Josh Groban and Elvis Presley? Streisand and Joplin?

My deepest apologies, Rob. I, of course, was extremely thoughtless in my choice of headlines. :-) EL

I'm on the fence about it too, because I'm pretty picky about the type of music being played. I would run screaming from the strains of the aforementioned 80s cliché bands, as well as anything loud with the bass turned up high enough that you feel your teeth rattle.

That being said, I recently ate in a very quiet Indian restaurant with no background music and it made the experience a lot less pleasant than it should have been (because the food was great). It was a small place, so we could hear in painstaking detail the awkward conversation of a probable first date on the other side of the room.

It's obviously impossible to satisfy all of your customers, but trying to choose music that fits with the overall tone of the establishment is a worthwhile endeavor. Even if you fail, at least you made the effort.

Music can really make or break a small place. If I love the music in the background, I'll come back if the food was even passable. If I hate the music, I'm not going again. Ever.

And I hate really loud music as much as I hate no music. I don't want to hear everyone talking.

I'm a music snob, so although I know OF REO Speedwagon and Air Supply, I've never knowingly heard them. In a classy "joint," I love to hear a pianist riff on Porter, Gershwin, Sinatra, etc., or a harpist, or light jazz. I enjoy hearing "moldy oldies rock 'n' roll" in casual eateries because I grew up with it. But don't play loud, obnoxious modern "music" if you want my business. My ears are too sensitive, and that junk hurts my head.

My wife (much younger than me, should that excite you) is a registered nurse by day and popular caberet singer/performer at night. She performs as Bea Arthur, Dionne Warwick and other lovely ladies at supper clubs and restaurants (Applebees, Shuckers) in the Columbia area.

OBVIOUSLY I am a big fan of LIVE music and entertainment in certain fine dining restaurants. But when it sounds like the restauranteur has hooked up his Ipod and is playing his own personal play list, I generally refuse to patronize in the first place or leave immediately after being seated.

We had dinner at Junior's Sunday evening. I dislike most contemporary music, but I didn't even notice the background music.

EL - No need to apologize. I took no offense whatsoever at your headline; in fact it piqued my interest. As a matter of fact, I used to have business cards imprinted with "Don't shoot me - I'm the piano player - and a darn good one, too."

I've actually read a lot about this with respect to Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo. Apparently, the music there is VERY loud and is very rock-centric. The people who like it say it's fantastic - really infuses the place with Batali's personality - but the people who hate it, well, they hate it.

The only place I've ever really noticed the music is Grand Cru, and that's really a wine bar first. I know, though, that the bartenders are the ones who pick the music there, and they just sort of decide what to play based on how their feeling. I remember walking in on one sort of lazy Saturday afternoon and hearing Beastie Boys, then a week later, hearing jazz on a busy Saturday night.

Of course, I loved them both - partly b/c the incongruity made me laugh and partly just because I'm a big fan of everybody who works at GC.

I think it has to do with the accoustic setup of the restaurant. Some restaurants seem to be loud anyway even without music while others such as Dumsers (downyoceanhon) plays oldies to a packed house and no one has to scream to be heard. It could just be the way the building is made that pushes the noise around to unnacceptable limits.

I am very sensitive to this issue because I am hearing impaired and music that is too loud makes it impossible for me to hear the conversation. The one place that has live music that doesn't bother me is the Oregon Grille, which sometimes has a piano player (was that you, Rob?)

Hmmm, obviously my own name and
The Frying Squirrels
Plate of Shrimp
Hold the Lettuce
(Now I'm just hungry)
Boxing Jesus
Bacon Helmet
Duct Tape Shenannigans
Robot Weasel
Hank Williams Sonoma
Wine Belly
Touched by an Uncle
Big Gay Scissors
Chopin Broccoli
Toddler Hellhounds
Tramp Stamp
Descended Testicles
Dust Bunny Rapists
Shaved Apes
Nothin' But Mutton
Quality Footwear
The Love Pumpers
Shark Sandwich
It Goes to 11
Crushed by Dwarves

My favorite obscure band name is Amish Rake Fight.

The only place I can think of where the music was way too loud was my recent visit to Don't Know in Fed Hill. However, it's a tavern so I definitely didn't find it overly offensive. I do have a rule that a restaurant that has dishes for $20 or more on the menu should refrain from rock/pop/Elvis Costello/Billy Bragg. Unfortunately, the loud music at Don't Know didn't distract me from the terrible food - one of my two worst meals ever in Baltimore. Oh well.

Dahlink - That was not I at the Oregon Grille. Sadly, I'm like Bette Midler's character Vicky Edie: I've never made it to the big room - or, in this case, the better establishments. My past work has mostly been lounge acts (think "Fabulous Baker Boys").

Ooops. Wrong blog. Those were band names for Sam Sessa's blog. Sorry. Although they are very food-related.

Piano Rob--that you with Michelle Pfeiffer draped across the piano? Not too shabby!

SGI--what was the other worst meal?

Great list Voodoopork!

My fave band name is Mistletoe Beltbuckle.

Kooper's plays some great 80's new wave/postmodern/alternative that brings me back......sigh!

I agree with the "right music for the right restaurant" statement.

I love the All-Sinatra-All-The-Time that Morton's plays... hey, it's an old school steakhouse, for Pete's sake!

I also enjoy the Classic American Songbook background music in Oceanaire; it fits right in with the whole faux-ocean-liner thing.

And Christopher Daniel-- another steak house-- plays terrific instrumental jazz.

If the music being played is distracting, the restaurant likely shouldn't be playing it. If the music is not distracting, it's likely the right choice.

I wonder if in an attempt for restaurants to be "upscale casual" they feel playing Styx or Journey is appropriate and makes it feel less stuffy while you are eating your 20.00 sea scallops. I was really wondering too if the quality of music could relate to the price they paid to play it. That being said, our meal Saturday at Junior's was mostly good (the fried olives made me look at my home deep fryer with new respect) with a couple of minor flaws. It just struck me funny to hear "Stuck in the Middle with You" when I wasn't in a bar or at Denny's.

Is that Junior's Wine Bar in the photo?

Yep. EL

Christmas music in restaurants makes me crazy. The worst is the 12 Days of Christmas. Just torture.

Windows On The Bay, in Pasadena MD, has played really pleasing contemporary/ jazz, that's mildly swinging, moderate tempo, semi-toe tapping stuff, every time I've been there over the past two years. Of course the food has been excellent, which makes for a very nice, upscale/casual dining experience. Anyone disagree?

What about some real bands that have food names: Moby Grape, Vanilla Fudge, Strawberry Alarm Clock (whoa I almost had a flashback), Cream, Melt Banana, Peaches and Herb, Wild Cherry, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Melon, Apples in Stereo, Squirrel Nut Zippwers, the Raspberries, Bread, ...

Dahlink - I just read your question about my other worst meal so sorry for the late reply. goes: Martick's. I know people love it there, but...canned stewed tomatoes? Saltine crackers with the pate? A vodka soda delivered as a Coke with vodka? Etc., etc., etc. It was 'gack'-arific.

Haven't we already done the band names on this blog?--or maybe that was foodie songs ...

uMM, I did a whole menu of songs that were a five course menu of food and i feel like someone is olding s gunnnn to to me now, so maybe you should chedk out the origginal post cause I thinkg it was kinf aof cooj.

Ooops, typing in the dark is not such a good idea.

terriermom, I just thought you were channeling Rok Chiclet. Kewl!

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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