Music sets the mood for food

Now you hear it, now you hear it again. That used to be the rule for restaurants' background music.

Through the late 1990s and into this millennium, you could go from trattoria to pizza parlor across the nation and hear Rosemary Clooney belting "Mambo Italiano."


Fancy steakhouses have forever offered Frank Sinatra on a continuous loop, while at Rosa's Rosticeria in Santa Cruz, Calif., even some margarita drinkers got a little tired of Bob Marley's lilting reggae Legend album. No connection, but Rosa's has since closed.

And in the early days, restaurants wanting to be taken seriously played a lot of Ella Fitzgerald when they weren't repeating Vivaldi's "Four Seasons."


Lately the soundtrack to dining out has gotten a lot more specialized. Individual owners still mix and match to their own tastes, like one San Jose, Calif., Asian-fusion restaurant that plays Tony Bennett and k.d. lang. But increasingly, restaurants are buying premixed music for a purpose. Packages are customized to create a mood, get you to stay, get you to leave, cover up coughing and other peoples' cell-phone conversations, make you feel like dancing.

Speaking of changes, "We don't do elevators anymore," says Karen Vigeland, campaign and product manager at Muzak, based in Fort Mill, S.C.

The sleepy Muzak image has stuck since the '20s, when elevators were new and people were afraid to ride them. Muzak founder George Squier figured out how to calm nerves with music. Muzak now has audio architects building branded programs from 1.5 million songs. Still, Vigeland says, "The idea is to blend, not be really obvious. Music should complement the service and the decor."

Restaurant chains are major Muzak customers. Red Lobster has a family-oriented program that includes Al Green, Amy Grant and 10,000 Maniacs, with all songs cleared for bad words and context. Vigeland says context means, "Anything that might be construed as a drug, violence or sexual reference."

One of Muzak's quirkier restaurant customers bought a custom program of dead musicians. The Web site for Moe's Southwest Grill, an Atlanta-based burrito/Tex-Mex chain, explains: "Moe wanted to pay tribute to his heroes who have passed on and would never have a chance to taste his food."

Muzak also makes programs for fast-food places that want to appeal to all ages while moving them along. "It all depends on how long they want the customer to stay," Vigeland says. In the average 20 to 30 minutes spent at KFC, you will hear an upbeat, multigenerational mix of Aerosmith, the Beach Boys, Backstreet Boys and Buddy Holly.

Casting a much narrower net than KFC is hip, loudly pulsing Blowfish Sushi to Die For in San Jose. With a disc jockey five nights a week, Blowfish focuses very tightly on young adults and wants them to settle in for the evening.

"Feeling the sound" is how the restaurant's Web site puts it.


Andy Mirabell, the general manager, says, "Our atmosphere appeals to young professionals, mid-20s to mid-30s. But I'm surprised at the amount of 40s and over, even on our busiest nights."

On their busiest nights, Blowfish is so high-energy electronic, it throbs. There are speakers all over and subwoofers under the benches in the lounge, so customers physically feel the bass.

Mirabell says the music is constantly monitored. "We gauge the atmosphere. As it gets busier, I tune it down. You don't want to drown out that level of murmur of conversations."

Blowfish DJ Alex Jones says the progression on any given evening goes from "lounged-out" trip-hop or what they call "Cafe Del Mar" sunshine music, to harder house music with a dance beat.

Music technology migrating into restaurants includes downloads from digital music services like iTunes, although copyright law requires businesses of a certain size to pay royalties.

Satellite radio is another way to go. Sirius has some restaurant customers and hopes to attract more with its 65 commercial-free music channels and the payment of all licensing fees, says Jim Collins, vice president of corporate communications.


A modern Italian mood that doesn't repeat old hits? Forrest Gingold, executive chef at La Pastaia in downtown San Jose, streams Sorrento Radio, a 24-hour commercial-free music station in Italy, from the Web.

"I always like music when we eat. It glosses over the silent sections in the conversation," Gingold says. "It needs to be there, but not be there, like good service."

Sheila Himmel writes for the San Jose Mercury News.