Why restaurants can never get the music right

The Good Food Guide reports that noisy restaurants are becoming a major source of irritation to many of us
The Good Food Guide reports that noisy restaurants are becoming a major source of irritation to many of us

The latest edition of the Good Food Guide reports that noisy restaurants are becoming a major source of irritation to many of us.

That's restaurants made noisy not by the peal of conversation and the occasional satisfied "ting" of fine china, of course, but by canned or (less often these days) live music. According to the critics at the Good Food Guide, a growing number of establishments are putting off customers by deafening them with "Glastonbury-force" songs.

Factor in the hard-edged, industrial aesthetic beloved of today's edgier interior designers, and you've got a recipe for nervous exhaustion and recurrent tinnitus.

In these days of ceaseless innovation, there's also the very real risk that you'll mishear your server when she comes to explain the Concept to you - or she'll mishear your response - and you'll end up with 17 sharing plates of seasonal turnip ceviche in a locally sourced knotweed coulis instead of the steak and chips you wanted.

At best you'd be well advised to choose somewhere quieter for your marriage proposal: the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth, perhaps

Still, you can see why restaurants do it. A bit of music defrays awkward silences, which can occur when you're eating out; a bit more confers some energy on the room, and tells you something about what kind of experience the restaurateur wants you to have in it.

A bit of music defrays awkward silences, which can occur when you're eating out

Then there are fairly unambiguous coded messages about class and age and so forth. Black Axe Mangal in London plays a lot of Eighties "hair metal", a sort of music I'd have thought it's hard not to enjoy but more or less impossible to enjoy unironically, and thereby tells you that it's about big, exaggerated flavours, but also quite clever and meta, a sort of "so bad it's good" schtick.

A restaurant specialising in the cuisine of a particular country or region can tell you a lot about where it stands on the authenticity issue by what sort of music they play: dry and anthropological, cheesy and poppy and so on.

The subject of my next Sunday review, a "fine dining" joint on the south coast, goes in for blandly sophisticated, Latin-tinged jazz to suggest that it's grown-up and aspirational, but not stuffy or over-formal - all of which I found to be pretty much true.

"Noise levels, already amplified by bare-bones design, are being raised by music played at Glastonbury force," warns the Good Food Guide 2018. Credit: The Good Food Guide

The trouble - apart from the brute fact that as we age it's simply harder for some us to hear well - is that there's no more of a cultural consensus around music than there is around food. Most people nowadays have grown up with pop music, and so don't automatically feel threatened or appalled by it: they won't silently thumb in a 999 call under the table if Smack My Bitch Up comes on while they're waiting for their confit de canard.

There's no more of a cultural consensus around music than there is around food

But if Heston Blumenthal had designed his famous "experiential" dish "Sound of the Sea" around a recording of one of the interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes, say, or Echo Beach by Martha & the Muffins, rather than the actual, literal sound of the sea - well, some people might have got it; but many wouldn't have.

Maybe the lost arts of upholstery will make a return to the nation's dining rooms soon (at the spendier end of the market they never really went away). Maybe there will be a return to live music, to gypsy violins and mariachi trios, to "Come Back to Sorrento" and "As Time Goes By". In the meantime, you could always just ask them to turn it down a bit.