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Don't let music replace a good atmosphere

02 November 2006
Don't let music replace a good atmosphere

Whether it's imposed loudly in a bar or playing quietly in a restaurant, food writer Bill Knott feels music is getting in the way of having a good time

Maybe I'm getting old. Every bar, pub or club I visit these days seems to be pumping out music at ridiculous volumes. I like to see young people enjoying themselves, but there has to be a limit.

Actually, in most workplaces there already is a limit. But it will take another 18 months, before these rules are adopted by the music and entertainment sector: in particular, Britain's 1,750 nightclubs, where levels of 110 decibels are not uncommon. The recommended upper limit is 80 decibels, and experts warn that permanent hearing damage is highly likely if people are exposed to levels much in excess of this.

I have a distinct feeling, though, that those most in favour of loud music are the bar staff themselves, who find a thumping soundtrack makes their often rather dull jobs more tolerable. I sympathise, but it makes conversation impossible, and necessitates a degree in sign language to order drinks. Do people go to pubs, bars and clubs to meet and chat over a drink, or to stand on their own and nod inanely? As I say, I must be getting old.

There is another kind of music, usually much quieter but just as pernicious. I have had a strong allergy to background music in restaurants ever since a student job over Christmas in a pizza joint, where the festive season was celebrated with a particularly dismal bunch of seasonal songs on a looped tape. By Christmas Eve, I wanted to throttle Santa and his damn reindeer, and spit-roasted robin would have suited me very nicely for Christmas lunch.

The main problem, it seems to me, is that while restaurateurs may have exquisite taste in furnishings and lighting, they invariably have lousy taste in music. There's nothing remotely "ambient" about eating a plate of pasta with Dido's inconsequential warblings wafting over the fettuccine, or dining in some depressingly poshed-up hotel mausoleum, with Vivaldi, inevitably, joining you for dinner.

Atmosphere, I'm afraid, comes from customers having a good time: like respect, it has to be earned, not imposed. Music is no substitute, no matter how loud you play it.

What's the best way to set a restaurant's mood?

Russell Cox, restaurant manager, Pearl, London "When playing music in a restaurant it's very important to assess the mood. At lunchtime, customers will want to listen to a different type of sound than at dinner, and it's vital to get the right ambience. Getting the volume right is also important and it's all about matching the noise created by the guests rather than trying to compete with it."

Robbie Bargh, founder and director, Gorgeous Group "Lighting is one of the most effective ways of creating an atmosphere and can really change the setting. LED lighting is fantastic, and it really is worth hiring a lighting designer to get the most effective use from your lighting. Lights must be dimmable and controllable, and warm colours such as red and orange are preferable to white."

Mark Fuller, founder, Embassy restaurant and nightclub, London "The service of a restaurant must be easy and smooth, not overbearing, and staff must understand the moment and know when to leave customers alone. It always used to be just about the food, but nowadays ambience can really make a difference, and a restaurant with mediocre food could be fully booked because of its atmosphere."

Jonathan Butler, partner and head chef, Fosters on the Docks, Gloucester "The most important aspect in creating a good atmosphere is understanding your client base and knowing your market. Both your staff and the ambience of your establishment must reflect this understanding. Music can add an element to a restaurant, but it must be at at the right level."

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