EDP’s Take on Loud Restaurants, Peter Kelly Debuts Slovenia Vodka

PLUS: Chef Marc Lippman (formerly of the Kittle House) joins the Castle & Spa, and Burrata strikes back with the Julia Sexton Pizza!

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EDP’s Music-in-Restaurants Rant

In EDP’S ongoing series that addresses Eaterline complaints (last week dealt with the use of cell phones in restaurants), we’re going to discuss the uses and abuses of music in restaurants.

I get a lot of emails from diners who complain about the noise level in restaurants. It’s a constant point of contention, and I must say that I can’t always blame the complainers. Nowadays, in some restaurants, it’s hard to converse over a mind-bending stereo throb that traps diners in their own sonic bubbles and reduces them to miming at their dinner companions in order to communicate.

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But here’s the thing: restaurants need background music to diffuse the tension that comes with inevitable lulls in conversation. I suspect that our ability to carry on conversations declines in direct relationship to our increased love affair with the screens on TVs, phones, and computers. Plus, music creates a cheap, instant vibe. It tells the restaurant’s story as eloquently as its décor (think Indian restaurant and sitars, Italian restaurants and opera, or Japanese restaurants and kotos). But more critically, music offers a good bit of a sonic disguise. It masks all the crashing, sniffing, and coughing that come from an active kitchen and room full of large mammals. Personally, I think the hush of very formal, old-school restaurants feels uptight. I remember dropping a knife onto my plate at Bouley when I was a young and nearly dying of embarrassment when it made (to my ears) a deafening clatter.

Many diners don’t realize that a restaurant’s acoustic environment is the result, not of accident, but carefully considered choices. Not only do many restaurants invest in hundred-thousand dollar sound systems, but many also install noise dampening panels in the walls and ceilings. Restaurants that are loud usually choose to be loud. They do this by playing loud music and by installing a lot of hard surfaces (wood, paint, stone, glass, etc.) that bounce the sound around. Why, you may ask, would a restaurateur make such choices when he knows that his diners might have trouble conversing? One reason is that noise is energy, and a lot of noise creates a sense of activity, success, and excitement. But more sinister, a noisy environment is a way to subtly encourage one type of diner, while discouraging another.

That’s right. If you’re looking to attract a young, happening crowd to your restaurant, here are three ways to do it. Make your restaurant dark. Make your seats slouchy and your tables low—and, most important—play loud, throbbing music. Presto! Young families and seniors need not apply. Some restaurants try to snag the best of both worlds by playing music softy in the early hours, then transitioning to louder, harder soundtracks later in the evening.

So, if we take the value of volume out of the question, there still remains the question of music choice. This is one that’s very difficult, especially at the very best restaurants. I’m always amazed when I dine at excellent restaurants and I hear some banal tinkling of vaguely jazzy, hotel lobby piano. I don’t understand this music’s banality when everything else—the décor, the menu, the service—strives to be extraordinary. I once spoke with a restaurateur, I won’t say whom, about the problem of music and fine dining. He said that, in essence, the experience of music in restaurants shouldn’t intrude on the experience of food and company. So, diners shouldn’t stop talking and eating in order to attend to the music. Personally, I say BS: I like beautiful décor and beautiful music. And I enjoy when a restaurateur uses the music in his restaurants to express something about his point of view. For instance, I always admired Mario Batali for ditching the tinking piano keys at Babbo to play loud, bombastic Baba O’Reilly. Batali’s food is big, so why not his music?

In my recent memory, the most delightful use of music and food came with the Great Led Zeppelin Wine Pairing of 2009. Here, Joe Bastianich, Mike Edison, and David Lynch used the music of Led Zeppelin to complement a wine and food pairing. I think this is brilliant. To echo a quote often attributed to Elvis Costello (“writing about music is like dancing about architecture”), it’s unfortunate that sommeliers are forced to use language to express qualities of taste. I like the idea of a sommelier coming to my table, clapping ear buds in my ears and saying, This wine tastes something like this. How could this be any less effective than, say, calling the wine “insouciant”?

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So that’s about the jist of it. Don’t assume that loud dining rooms are an oversight, or that your complaint about the volume will have managers running toward the volume button. Think of the music in restaurants as a one of many tools—menu, service, décor, lighting—that restaurateurs use to communicate a vision. If you don’t like the way that music is used by one restaurant, then maybe you can find another restaurant that suits better. Which is probably not all that helpful—but, go ahead and drop me an email on the EaterLine and give me your take on the music and sound levels in restaurants.

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Slovenia Vodka Debuts
By now, you’ve heard about Peter Kelly’s new project—Slovenia Vodka—that he’s presenting with help from dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and actor Bill Murray. The brand was launched last week at Oceana Restaurant in a star-studded event that was attended by Kelly, Murray, Baryshnikov and loads of foodie bigwigs. In the crowd, we spotted restaurateurs Drew Nieporent and Dave DiBari, plus GQ critic Alan Richman. And everyone was well behaved and fought the urge to put their mouths on the gorgeous Slovenia vodka luge because that would have been inappropriate in such a dressed up crowd. (Though, let’s face it, we all wanted to.)


Chef Marc Lippman named
Executive Chef of Equus at The Castle Hotel & Spa

Moving right along! After his sudden departure from Crabtree’s Kittle House, Chef Marc Lippman was named Executive Chef at Castle Hotel & Spa. From the release, “Gilbert Baeriswil, General Manager at Castle Hotel & Spa (formerly Castle on the Hudson) announced that Marc Lippman of Stamford, CT, has been appointed Executive Chef of Culinary Operations at Castle Hotel & Spa (including the award-winning restaurant, Equus). In making the appointment, Baeriswil commented, “As a celebrated and multi-award-winning chef, his culinary achievements will bring a new culinary dimension to the Castle Hotel & Spa’s signature restaurant, banquet and catering facilities.”

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Backyard Chicken-Keeping at Stone Barns Center
May 5, 1-3 pm
$18 for Members, $20
Chicken coops are the new three-car garage, and, if you want to keep up with Joneses, then you’ll need to tear up your lawn and get down to business. And, by business, we mean brooding heritage breed chicks. Listen, Martha Stewart does it, and I’m sure Gwinnie would, too, if she weren’t vegan. Learn how to raise chickens from Craig Haney, livestock manager at Blue Hill Stone Barns—for tickets and more info, click here.

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You wanna piece of me?
The Julia Sexton Pie at Burrata
Actually, that was the cleanest headline that I could come up with, and I’ve been playing around with the Julia Sexton Pie for weeks (not literally!). Turns out that Burrata took exception to a point that I made in last year’s review where I said that burrata cheese ought never to be cooked. I’m sure that I went on to liken the cheese to Freshen Up gum—its pleasures come from the contrast of firm exterior and bursting, wet insides—which disappear whenever burrata is cooked. So, to needle me, Burrata’s owner Chaz Anderson invented the Julia Sexton pie. After the pie’s base is wood-fired and deliciously crisped under a scattering of wood-roasted cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced garlic, the pie is served  topped with cracked black pepper, extra virgin olive oil, arugula leaves and fat gobs of raw, fresh burrata. The pie is peppery and a little cheesy, just like me—plus, I love being able to say with justification, Bite me. (Also, to be honest, this could have been a train wreck. I mean, what if the pie was really porky?) 

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