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Growing breed of restaurateurs pay attention to music as much as food



In 2012, when Jeremie Horowitz launched Lower Parel’s Cafe Zoe on the lines of a relaxed European brasserie, it was common to get requests from patrons to play Bollywood chartbusters. It has now reduced to a trickle, owing to the growing realisation that no Bollywood soundtrack will ever play out of this outpost. “Each time, I would have to politely decline, not because I don’t like Hindi music but it’s not in our DNA. It’s for the same reason that we don’t serve Indian dishes. The music, too, needs to reflect who we are,” says Horowitz about the sky-lit restaurant that is as popular for soulful jazz music as it is for the rosemary potato wedges.

Not an afterthought
Horowitz belongs to the growing cadre of musically-inclined restaurateurs who curate their playlists with the same seriousness as they do their menu. For the 38-year-old, it comes from being raised in a Belgian household where music dominated dinner table conversations. His father, Isi Horowitz, is a lover of Western classical music, and that’s where he picked it from. No wonder then, that if you walk into Cafe Zoe for breakfast after 7.30 am, you’ll be treated to the magic of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner. As the day progresses, the music transitions in to light jazz over lunch, and, house and slow tempo by night.

Nevil Timbadia with the jukebox at Bandra's Jamjar that is loaded with '50s American classics curated by the owners. Pic/Atul Kamble
Nevil Timbadia with the jukebox at Bandra’s Jamjar that is loaded with ’50s American classics curated by the owners. Pic/Atul Kamble

“Music has the same function as lighting. It needs to change with the time of the day. Sometimes, I pepper it with a French or Spanish playlist, but nothing too electronic or pacey,” he says.

It’s the interplay between music and dining experience that has restaurant owners burning the proverbial midnight oil to create the right playlists. Last month, The New York Times carried a story about Japanese music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, who “could not bear” the music played at Kajitsu, his favourite Manhattan restaurant, and therefore decided to create the playlist himself.

Harpist Nush Lewis remembers the time she wanted to walk out of a restaurant that was playing blasting loud and kick heavy EDM in the morning. “You don’t want to listen to that kind of music while having breakfast. Keep it simple and play something nice and acoustic or light jazz; the kind of music that won’t drown a conversation,” she says.

Nush Lewis, Harpist
Nush Lewis, Harpist

No music, no play
Pankaj Gupta of BKC’s Taftoon, that offers a culinary journey through the Grand Trunk Road, recalls spending over three months deciding what music will play at the restaurant. For him, it was borne out of the need to break away from the clichés associated with restaurants serving Indian cuisine. “When you position yourself as an Indian restaurant, there’s the typical slow instrumental music you expect. We wanted to turn this on the head,” he says. What you’ll get to hear instead are songs by Turkish artistes such as Sezen Aksu, Kayahan, Tarkan, Demet Akalın fused with beats of Indian instruments like santoor, rubab, dhol, tabla, ektara and violin. “We have even infused these elements into songs by Drake, Sean Paul and Calvin Harris. We aren’t here to please the purists,” he laughs.

For a lot of young restaurateurs, music and food are inextricably linked. It emerges from their personal experience dining at restaurants where music would often be treated as an afterthought. Gaurav Dabrai, co-owner of The Looney, Lover and the poet, embarrassingly admits that he has even paid DJs to stop playing certain soundtracks. “They recognise me for this,” he jokes. It’s the reason why he makes it a point to thrash out the playlist every month. New tracks are added and slow movers are discarded as per the response. “You can gauge the response through non-verbal cues. If the guest stops to groove in the middle of a conversation, it’s working,” he says.

Nevil Timbadia, co-owner Jamjar Diner and Bonobo, who curates the playlists for both restaurants given his interest in the field believes “music and dining are inseparable”. For the 34-year-old, who has worked with global music festivals, it’s music that plays a key role in defining the vibe of the restaurant. “Songs trigger memories. It’s the reason you’d associate a crazy drunken night with Bonobo, as opposed to a first date at Jamjar,” he says. Here, the jukebox contains classic American songs by Brian Kennedy, Paul Young and Kirs Kross. It turns out that all the CDs were purchased by the owners at the time when Colaba’s Rhythm House was still in business. “We bought around 100 CDs back then, but after it shuttered it’s been Amazon to the rescue,” says Timbadia. At a little distance from Hill Road’s Jamjar, stands Bonobo, whose music is radically different. “Here, it’s more experimental and electronic. We keep the music singable on weekdays, whereas on weekends it’s out and out EDM because it’s a party place,” he says. According to Timbadia, music can have the same effect on customer’s impression of the brand as the other things such as food and service.

Getting it right
While getting the tracks right is half the battle won, the latter half hinges on the sound experience. “The acoustics matter. You might get the song right, but if it’s not sounding good, it’s a buzzkill,” says Lewis.

Horowitz agrees. He was lucky to have found a perfect haven in the high ceiling and exposed brick walls, which due to its density helped block sound from passing through it.

Artist Samuel Berlie, who has been part of live performances at restobars for close to a decade, says many owners try to purposefully create a noisy restaurant to make it look like it’s “buzzing”. “The volume at which you play the music is very important. It’s a last ditch attempt to bring in footfalls,” he says. So, is no music then a good idea? “I don’t think so. I’d always want my restaurant to have music. Once you hit the sound button, it means you are ready to roll,” says Timbadia.

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