Submitted By Simon Hardy Butler, November 3, 2016

While dining with my wife at Bouley earlier this year, I heard something rather interesting that deserves to be mentioned.

Music—presumably of the recorded variety. Not unappealing, but definitely curious. What was it doing at Bouley, one of the great bastions of Manhattan gastronomy?

As I recall, the selections were pleasantly jazzy, soft and subtle—no cacophonous 12-tone melodies or boisterous excerpts from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. It was, one may assume, music to consume meals to, and it didn’t distract …especially as the dinner we devoured was superb all around. But were these tunes necessary?

An emailed request for comment on this subject from Bouley was not responded to at press time.

Bouley isn’t the only high-end eatery doing this. I heard prerecorded music at a meal I enjoyed earlier this year at the now-shuttered Colicchio & Sons, too—it was a bit more upbeat, more percussive … but prerecorded all the same. No matter, though: It’s obvious that music is being used quite effectively at upscale establishments to set the mood, and this brings up some interesting connotations. Remember when classical pieces were frequently played at the fancy spot you went to in ye olden days? Remember when playing such music during a meal was regarded as “tasteful”?

It’s a fascinating subject to consider—and for some, it summons up much nostalgia. The association of prerecorded music with ritzy gastronomic experiences is a hallowed one, yet it seems that many restaurants in this day and age prefer to keep their rooms silent, allowing just the flow of conversation and the rustle of their staffs to break the internal sound barrier. Why spots such as Bouley choose to go “old-school” here is a mystery. Bear in mind it’s not a bad thing. It’s just a mystery.

And it may be difficult to get to the bottom of this. Certainly, we’ve all heard thumping, often all-too-loud pop or rock music in lively Gotham hotspots, and the idea there is frequently to show how vivacious the scene is—even if the food is any good at all. But go up a level of quality, however, and the goal seems to be a little different: the notion behind playing prerecorded music may seem to be more in line with maintaining a tasteful atmosphere, offering a demonstration of sophistication. That certainly worked with both Bouley and Colicchio & Sons. Is it a practice that more restaurants should adopt, however?

I wonder about that. It takes a good eatery to pull off this convention without seeming pretentious, and not every place will fit that bill. Just because an establishment plays Mozart in the background doesn’t mean it has delicious food—no, even the master composer wouldn’t improve a plate of overcooked duck breast … not even if it’s accompanied by the glorious “Contessa, perdono”-spiked finale of Le Nozze di Figaro. Still, it has to be mentioned that a little music adds a bit of spice to a meal and can even complement it. This line of thinking may have been in the minds of the teams who chose the melodies to be played at Bouley and Colicchio & Sons. It might have even influenced the folks at snazzy eateries past.

Really, whether playing prerecorded music is germane during noshing hours at a restaurant depends on what the establishment is seeking and what kind of place it aspires to be. It may not, of course, be apropos in all cases. But it’s surely an intriguing tradition.

Let’s hope it gathers steam. After all, we could use a little judiciously applied tune now and then while we eat, methinks.

Just not while I munch on my beloved pastrami sandwich at the 2nd Avenue Deli. I don’t know why, but Mozart, in that context, doesn’t feel right.

Take it or leave it, Proponents of the Playlist. It’s all up to you … from here on in.

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