GFG archives

No music please, we're British
Published 10 February 2022

In the 1987 edition of The Good Food Guide, Andrew Lloyd Webber explored the age-old debate of music in restaurants. Has anything changed after thirty years?

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber revives an old Guide grudge against musak-while-you-eat.

I wondered if it was the hideous décor at Jacques Maximin’s Chantecler in the Negresco at Nice that stopped all conversation at lunch. It was during the third playing of Richard Clayderman’s interpretation of the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto that I realised that it wasn’t the décor destroying les filets de rouget à la salade de denti sur un concassé de concombre et de tomates. The cassette had stuck on permanent replay of one twenty-minute segment that included such hits as Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto and half of Rachmaninov’s Variation 18 on Paganini, at which point the tape repeated. The effect was rather like being force fed microwaved onion bhajis during a performance of the Beethoven Grosse Fuga string quartet.

Now, I have to be the first admit that there are occasions when music is greatly complemented by food and wine and vice versa. A visit to the Hard Rock Café without the music would be a case in point. A visit to some musicals would certainly be improved by a decent glass and possibly even an onion bhaji. And, of course, there is the revival of café society in London and elsewhere. A superb artist like Steve Ross, whose contribution as a singer and pianist at Backstage in New York put him and the restaurant on the map, is a wonderful example of how a musician can make a restaurant and how sometimes a restaurant can make a musician’s career.

But there is an important distinction between Chantecler and Backstage or the Hard Rock Café. At Chantecler you go to eat, to make conversation and to appreciate the work of an excellent chef who is also an artist. At the others, you go for a different experience where the music is a vital part of the occasion, not something forced upon you.

I find some of the worst offenders of the musak school are those expensive French restaurants where you are forced to hear taped’ classical’ music and I mean literally classical as it always seems to be Vivaldi or Mozart. These 'classical' tapes seem intended to create an atmosphere of refined reverence so that we know we are about to be in the hands of a culinary maestro, that we're jolly lucky to be there and that we can be certain of an obligatory service charge of at least fifteen per cent when the bill is presented on the obligatory, pretty Villeroy and Boch china.

Such places abound in France nowadays and are exactly typified in London by the otherwise excellent Rue St Jacques. I recall a quite brilliant meal there with an old friend who happens to be a conductor He found it impossible to battle on against Mozart's Clarinet Quintet because he couldn't help but be drawn to the music, however subliminally. I'm afraid we skipped coffee and went to a nearby wine bar where there was no music, thus depriving the restaurant of the price of a second bottle (and the fifteen per cent obligatory service charge on it). I don't believe that only we were affected by the music. No one else was making a lot of conversation either. It is such a shame, because here is a really good restaurant I myself would automatically never choose. Bravo, therefore, Raymond Blanc. There is no music at Le Manoir.

At Mosimann's Dorchester Terrace Room the band is live and there was, at my last visit, quite a lively atmosphere, although only the food persuaded me I was not in Butlins. But then came the long wait for the main course - forty minutes - during which Tie a Yellow Ribbon and an interesting male version of Don't Cry For Me Argentina began to jar. They blamed a power failure in the kitchen. Pity it didn't extend to the band.

Perhaps worse are those Italian restaurants where the tape always seems to be at slightly the wrong speed. You don't have to have perfect pitch to find conviviality difficult when Come Prima is loudly churned out in a key midway between C and C sharp major. Bravo, therefore, San Frediano's where there is a happy bustle and hubbub, even on the rare occasions when the restaurant isn't full, and not a 'Volare' in earshot.

Taboo also for me are most Indian restaurants. Indian music didn't do a lot for the Beatles. It certainly doesn't redeem our local curry house in Newbury. I always think there is a dead atmosphere in Indian restaurants and I am sure the music is the reason. So, bravo the Bombay Brasserie, where the music is limited to an occasional pianist and the atmosphere is as good as anywhere in London.

I could give endless examples but may I suggest that next time you go to a restaurant with ‘background' music, particularly if there are just two of you, you compare the event with a meal in a similar restaurant that doesn't have any music. I bet that there you will talk more, enjoy yourselves more and appreciate the food and wine all the better. You wouldn't ask M. Maximin to fry his fresh courgette flowers in lard. Why does he have to do the equivalent to Mozart?

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