Restaurant playlists can be polarizing.

Recently, a friend sent me an email appalled at the songs playing at the high-end Philadelphia spot where he was enjoying a romantic birthday dinner with his fiancée.

“‘Teenage Wasteland’ just came on,” he typed (hopefully while his dining partner was in the bathroom and not staring in annoyance as he ignored her for his phone). “Now Will Smith’s ‘Summertime’ is playing. End this injustice!”

“Find out about restaurant music soundtracks,” he implored. “Are these as thoughtful as the food and the decor? There’s no way.”

The battle of ‘umph umph umph’

When Esquire’s John Mariani named Sbraga one of America’s Best New Restaurants, in 2012, he didn’t base his decision on the restaurant’s soundtrack.

As soon as he sat down for his meal he asked for the volume to be lowered, and engaged then-general manager Ben Fileccia (now director of operations) in a complainy discourse about the dismal state of dining room sound.

“Why do restaurants all play that ‘umph umph umph’ music all the time now?” Fileccia remembers Mariani asking. It was a rhetorical question. The esteemed food writer followed with a mini-diatribe about how his best dining experiences had been at places with nothing playing at all.

Tastes are subjective, but in general, we love music. For many of us, it’s just about as close as you can get to experiencing magic. Scientists could define it as nothing more than set of timed vibrations, but those orchestrated resonances can evoke surprisingly deep emotions — happiness, sorrow, exuberance, nostalgia.

In any case, music is important. Even when it’s not the focal point, like at a concert or show, music is the touchstone for setting the mood of a space. Including a space that’s a restaurant.

Back at Sbraga, Mariani challenged Fileccia to name even one restaurant that was both highly regarded and played loud music. Fileccia shot back “Babbo” — Mario Batali’s NYC spot that’s known as much for its chef-selected, roil-your-eardrums playlist as its unapologetically rich pasta dishes.

Mariani simply walked away, but the comment must have stuck. Two years later, he published a retrospective on restaurant music through the ages in which he singled out Babbo as marking the “ear-shattering…moment restaurant music shifted from the background to the forefront.”

He scoffed at the idea of pairing Radiohead and Guns N’ Roses with fine Italian food, and lamented that Batali had “let loose the floodgates” for chefs and restaurateurs to play whatever tunes they felt like.

Though few words in restaurant reviews are dropped on music selection (which usually gets a mention only if it grates), many restaurants do make very deliberate choices about what customers will hear.

“The idea of music in any venue where it is not the primary draw should really be that it helps to tell you something about the place — just like decorations or color schemes,” said restaurateur Jeff Benjamin, who happens to be an avid country music fan but instead leaves the more urban soundtracks at the Vetri Family’s eight restaurants up to his partners Marc Vetri, Jeff Michaud and Brad Spence. “It helps set the stage.”

Enhancing the vibe

Often, the selection is curated to dovetail with an establishment’s general vibe.

At South Philly beer haven Pub on Passyunk East, owner Dennis Hewlett stocks his jukebox with albums from artists that reflect a fun and friendly attitude: Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Beastie Boys. But at Bardot, his Northern Liberties wine and cocktail den, the mix is decidedly more sultry like the bar’s namesake Nouvelle Vague cinema star: Blues, jazz, French chanson, ambient and soul.

The vibe can change throughout the evening, like at CookNSolo spot Abe Fisher, where the playlist — ok’d by old Abe himself, per a restaurant rep — starts out mellow and gets more lively for the dinner rush, or at Sbraga, where you might catch Sade during the early hours but finish up with Kanye and Ludicrous by the end of the night.

Sometimes, shifts in tonality are driven by the crowd. Copabanana’s Bill Curry describes running a restaurant on South Street as being similar to operating a timeshare. Thanks to its location, “we deal with a mixed crowd,” he explained, characterizing his clientele as “everything from parents with kids to hip-hopsters.”

“Generally, the bartenders gauge the audience and keep people at the bar by playing music they’ll like,” he said.

A similar but slightly different philosophy informs the music a bit further up South Street at Jet Wine Bar, where owner Jill Weber’s favorite thing is to introduce patrons and staff to something new.

“I encourage the staff to pay attention to the crowd and adapt the music accordingly — sometimes it should be a little louder and a little more funky,” she wrote in an email. Jet’s eclectic playlist includes “a bit of everything: country, rock, pop, hip hop, reggae, jazz, swing, etc.,” plus music Weber discovers while traveling the globe for her job as an archaeologist, like South African artist Spoek Muthambo.

Going with the flow

If a restaurant is inspired by just one specific culture or country, pinning down a playlist can be a breeze.

“Since we’re a blues venue, it’s easy. We play the blues,” said George Reilly of The Twisted Tail. The second floor at his Headhouse Square juke joint hosts live music six nights a week, but a separate playlist helps keep the dining room infused with bluesy ambiance.

At Mexico City-themed Cafe Ynez, the score is mostly Latin/Mexican, said general manager Qamara Edwards. “The more upbeat the better. Guests love how our music instantly puts them in a good mood.”

Many restaurant owners are proud of the positive comments their soundtracks regularly garner. Clientele often praise the music at Southern-influenced Rex 1516, where bartender “Sweet Lou” likes to search for and play esoteric pre-1960s jazz.

“We get compliments all the time,” boasted chef Mitch Prensky, who once explored a career as musician and sound engineer. “I’ve even emailed our playlist to customers who requested it.” At Supper, which serves high-end, Southern-leaning food, he curates a mix of jazz, blues and some classic rock ‘n’ roll, while at fast-casual Scratch Biscuits, his Americana score incorporates country, Southern rock and Memphis soul.

Red gravy, red America

Sometimes, expectations attached to a certain type of cuisine can be a disadvantage.

“Why aren’t you playing Sinatra?” is a question Francis Cratil Cretarola often fields. At Le Virtu, which he owns with partner Catherine Lee, the food is Italian. But not that kind of Italian. The East Passyunk spot serves the varied cuisine of Abruzzo, a less well-known area of Italy that’s sometimes called “the greenest region in Europe.”

Instead of spaghetti and meatballs, there’s braised rabbit ragu. Instead of chicken parm, there’s roasted lamb. Likewise, instead of Dean Martin crooning from the speakers, it’s often Southern Italian music that flows through the dining room. A customer once asked why he had to listen to “Arab music.” What he was hearing was actually a song by a Puglia-based band called Uaragniaun.

“We believe all sorts of music can live together, from traditional Pugliese and Abruzzese folk to all types of jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, alternative, funk and even punk,” said Cratil Cretarola. “There is sort of a 1980’s mixed-tape geek ethos at work. We want to avoid stereotypes (especially Italian ones) and engender a new perspective and an open mind.”

Stereotypes are also crushed at the Good King Tavern, a bistro inspired by co-owner Bernard Grigri’s native Côte d’Azur. But instead of the laid back lounge music you might associate with the French Riviera, the soundtrack chosen by Grigri’s daughter and business partner Chloe is made up of mostly funk and soul.

“One of my favorite things is to see people dance their way out after a meal,” Chloe said. “Yes, this does happen frequently.”

Licensed to ill

An issue only some restaurant owners seem to be aware of is that it’s not entirely kosher for them to create soundtracks from their own private collections. Whether they’re pulled from CDs, played off iPods or streamed through Spotify, those songs are only licensed for personal use — not for playback in a public space.

National “performing rights organizations” like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC work to enforce what is essentially a violation of songwriters’ copyrights, and often threaten to sue dining establishments that haven’t paid the correct licensing fees.

It creates another headache for restaurateurs to deal with, and it’s one reason for the success of companies like Gray V. The NYC-based firm was founded by Lori Hon, who previously ran several sushi bars in Boulder. “We never paid the fees at our restaurants,” she noted, but she did deal with the hassle of getting pursued for fees several times. She also felt burdened by the weight of wanting to keep her music collection fresh, but not having the time to maintain it.

“I had staff paid to help with the lettuce, to deal with the water, but no one to work the music,” she said in a phone interview. One day, she met her business partner, a computer programmer, and the two had an epiphany. Their company would act as an intermediary and deal with all of that — licensing and selection — leaving chefs free to cook and managers free to dole out good service. In 2002 they formed Gray V, which now has thousands of restaurant clients across the world.

In Philadelphia, both Stephen Starr and Kevin Sbraga contract with the company. Hon and her team consult with them regularly to make sure the vibe and mix for each of their restaurants stays fresh and on point.

Corporate radio ready rock

Another way to provide a large library that doesn’t run afoul of licensing issues is an internet-connected jukebox. It’s what Mike “Scoats” Scotese uses at all three of his Northeast bars, Grey Lodge Pub, SawTown Tavern and HopAngel Brauhaus, where the overall goal is to please as many people as possible and whoever pays the juke calls the tune.

But there can be downsides to letting the inmates run the asylum.

When the old CD jukebox died at Johnny Brenda’s, William Reed and Paul Kimport decided to give the new tech a chance. They installed what “looked like a giant phone” on the wall to provide tunes for their first floor bar (the upstairs live music venue was already all set). According to Reed, it was a total failure.

“People love those because you can potentially choose from thousands of songs. But what do people play? Overplayed radio hits of the moment. Some people even pay extra to make others aware of their consumption of totally awful corporate radio ready rock,” Reed said. JB’s internet jukebox did not last long.

“We tore that obnoxious box off the wall and built a DJ booth with two old school turntables. Our DJs spin music that’s better and more diverse than any million-song jukebox catalog ever manages to be.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Thetelegraphfield from 2019 to 2023.