A restaurant meal is a combination of sensory experiences, from aromas wafting from the kitchen to the design of the dining room to the taste of each dish. But there’s an often overlooked sense factoring into the dining experience: sound.
Beyond the chatter of other diners, clanging of plates and glassware, and general din of a restaurant, music typically sets the mood in the dining room. The soundtrack isn’t simply background noise, but a series of carefully chosen songs, sometimes following a theme.
Tal Baum sees music as part of the transportive atmosphere at her Atlanta restaurants Aziza, Rina, Bellina Alimentari, and Atrium, which starts the minute people walk in the door. The playlists receive the same attention to detail as the design, the menu, and presentation of dishes at each restaurant. This is especially true, Baum says, of the playlist at Aziza. Songs playing over the sound system at Aziza are those she grew up listening to back in Israel and mimic the liviness of restaurants in the city of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean coast.
Modern Israeli cuisine is “a melting pot,” she adds, so the playlist reflects a similar blend of cultures. When the restaurant opened in 2019, Baum personally selected between 50 and 70 songs spanning a broad range of musical genres for Aziza. There are French, Arabic, and Hebrew songs woven into the playlist, along with rap, pop, and electronica. She worked with sound design company Gray V to create an algorithm-based playlist that works off of her initial choices. Every few months, Baum refreshes her list with new songs so the playlist doesn’t become stale.
At Humble Mumble, chef Justin Dixon wants the restaurant to be a representation of Atlanta through food and music, but he also wants it to represent him. Songs he chooses for the playlists are personal, embodying the music he listened to during his formative years from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s. Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Outkast is a favorite of Dixon’s, with their song “Humble Mumble” serving as inspiration for the name of his pop-up. Then there’s Anita Baker, whom his mom loved, and old-school funk that his dad always listened to when he was growing up. All of these musical influences show up on Dixon’s playlists, which are regularly posted to the Humble Mumble website.
“Many of the biggest artists to come out of Atlanta are hip-hop and R&B artists,” Dixon says. “I feel like that music has a place in the food scene here, and I don’t think it gets nearly enough recognition in this city in the food world.”
Aligning music to a restaurant’s brand isn’t the only consideration. Owners may queue up different songs based on the location and time of day so the playlist complements, rather than distracts, from the meal service.
If Dixon is catering an intimate dinner party, for instance, he’ll play songs with a lower frequency or slower pace. But if he’s popping up at a brewery, he makes sure the songs are energetic and tries to match the runtime of the playlist to the length of the event. Dixon finds 50 songs can carry a Humble Mumble pop-up between five or six hours. Over at his restaurant residency at the Collective at Coda food hall in Midtown, the lunchtime crowd comes in waves, so Dixon queues up an all-purpose playlist of several hundred songs spanning a range of genres to keep it from repeating.
Rafael Pereira, who worked in the music industry prior to opening Brazilian restaurant and coffee bar Buteco in Grant Park, pays close attention to the songs playing at specific points throughout the day. Though the Grant Park restaurant invites a regular rotation of DJs and musicians to perform live on the patio every week, Pereira makes sure Buteco’s playlists are just as intentional.
“[Music] brings you back to a place, and it brings you back to a memory that you have,” Pereira says.
During the day, music is softer and calmer to accommodate business meetings or people working remotely. At night, sounds skew more toward funk and soul with Latin or South American roots. Pereira worked with Atlanta DJ Mike Zarin to develop a Brazilian playlist that serves as a springboard for the restaurant’s other soundtracks.
With curated playlists and a vinyl selection to choose from at his Midtown restaurant, chef Craig Richards of Lyla Lila energizes diners by selecting different genres of music throughout dinner service, all while matching the musical vibe to the casually chic space. He’ll start with jazz early in the evening to “get everyone warmed up.” Music might shift later to classic soul, new wave, upbeat indie, or dance electronica to turn up the energy. Lyla Lila features around 20 playlists, each consisting of 25 to 30 songs and with a runtime of around an hour and a half to two hours.
“I want the music to be a noticeable part of the experience, to help elevate it and keep it from getting stuffy,” Richards says. “I like to have elements of fine dining at Lyla Lila, but the music keeps us from getting too uptight.”
While music often evokes an emotional response, it can also influence the amount of time people stay in a restaurant, how much they eat, and how much they spend, according to research on the effects of music on purchasing and atmosphere at restaurants.
Design also plays a key role in how music affects the meal and mood at a restaurant. Whether music enhances the space or just adds to the noise of a restaurant relies heavily on reverberation time, or the amount of time it takes a room to dissipate a sound, acoustician Zackery Belanger says. If the shape and materials of the dining room don’t diffuse sound quickly enough — around 1.2 seconds is ideal — it can cause people to talk louder to one another. Eventually, understanding what people are saying becomes noticeably difficult.
“The more complex the boundaries of the room — the more complex their surface shaping — generally the better the room will be at dissipating,” says Belanger, who founded acoustics studio Arcgeometer in Detroit. Flat, blank surfaces act like a mirror, reflecting and sustaining sound rather than absorbing it. On the other hand, textures like books lining shelves, coffered ceilings, or wall sculptures can help scatter sound more quickly.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving the right balance of music volume at a restaurant. Aside from the architecture and design of the dining room, other factors are at play, including the number of people in the restaurant, whether the restaurant features an open kitchen that adds to the noise levels, and how lively the owner wants the dining room to be.
For Danny Song, co-owner of Gaja in East Atlanta Village, music is inseparable from the restaurant’s identity as a “Korean punk rock bar.” When Gaja first opened, there was a set group of playlists approved for different times of service and a rule that the restaurant eschews the hits. This means no songs from recognizable groups like the Ramones. In fact, Song says he hopes guests actually don’t know the songs playing over the sound system most of the time.
“[Gaja] feels divey, it feels secret, it feels foreign,” Song says. And the fact that people might not know the words to the songs and may not be familiar with the food, he adds, helps transport diners that much more.
Now the entire staff contributes to the soundtrack queue. But no matter who’s controlling the set list at Gaja, songs always lean toward genres like power pop, garage rock, and post-punk with songs from less well-known bands.
Given that Buteco’s staff members have ties to several countries, Pereira also lets his team help build playlists to keep them fresh and expand the musical perspective of the restaurant. When Buteco books live performances on the patio, playlists are still part of the experience. If it’s samba night, the accompanying songs might include the Brazilian genres of forró or baile funk. If a particular musician is playing, Pereira might ask the artist to share a few songs they’ve been listening to lately to play over the sound system between sets.
“The staff jokes that I take [our playlists] too seriously sometimes, but I can’t help it,” says Pereira.