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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

Foreground music

Some diners do not go to restaurants to be entertained

Christopher Golub
Thinking of oneself as a fogey is so poignant for a boomer, so vested are we in being the nation’s new generation. When we find more and more Xers taking our favorite seats on the bus, we react with ill grace.

I thought of that as I stood in line the other day at Chipotle. I go there for the veggie burrito. I didn’t order music with it, but I got it with my order anyway. Chipotle is one of those firms that has a company DJ who “curates” the songs played at all the chain’s restaurants. The next time you find yourself having to shout “black beans” in a public place (as no gentleman wishes to do) you can thank Christopher Golub.

Or damn him, as I did. I heartily endorse the view of the crabby Englishmen who recently wrote that piped-in music is the scourge of modernity, an abomination that is pernicious and deeply offensive. What I call foreground music ruins both the music – you can’t concentrate because you are trying to listen to your tablemate – and the conversation, because you are constantly interrupted or distracted by the music. (Music with lyrics is the most distracting, a good lyric being itself a conversation between listener and the performer.) It is a familiar sensation from most workplaces and most living rooms where two things are going on at once. The result is what has been dubbed a state of “continuous partial attention.”

Which phrase pretty much describes youth these days. Young people don’t need places where conversation is possible because they don’t converse – instead they “communicate.” Most have no experience of social dining at home, having grown up eating in cars or on foot. No wonder that the model for fast food emporia is not the restaurant but the filling station.

What young people seem to crave is not food but noise, and the acoustics of the new class of hip restaurants oblige them. This suits restaurateurs just fine. Loud, fast music has repeatedly been shown to make people eat faster. Playing it thus pushes diners to finish sooner so the proprietors can accommodate more diners per evening. Restaurateurs also exploit the fact that loud noise, including music, is like ketchup: Pour it on, and everything tastes the same. No need to fine-tune the menu when you can just turn up the sound system. Fast music also spurs people to drink more – crucial in a business in which the kitchen breaks even at best and the profits, if there are any, are made in beverages. And young people tend to eat and drink more than their elders anyway, so music that drives away people who remind the chef of his parents, his accountant or his divorce lawyer is profitable as well as pleasurable.

I have no hope that the owners of dining places catering to the young will change for people like me. I do hope that more restaurant critics and the compilers of dining guides change the criteria by which they rate restaurants. Noise is at least as crucial a criterion as menu or price when it comes to choosing a place to eat. Instead of stars, restaurant critics at the San Francisco Chronicle rank restaurants for noise by awarding bells according to how many decibels diners are subjected to. The worst of them, astonishingly, rival factory floors; risking indigestion is one thing, but deafness?

At one well-known and well-reviewed Springfield restaurant – think elegant, think west side, think stripmall – the noise blasting from the bar at the back of a large, open room stopped us at the door. The hostess, seeing we were about to turn around and walk out the door, asked why. I explained that we had hoped to be able to talk; she offered to turn down the music, which they did – just long enough for us to be seated and order, after which they turned it up again. I never went back, which probably made the owner as happy as it’s made me.

I am pleased to report that some of Springfield’s newer eateries have better manners. American Harvest maintains a civilized volume level that allows its guests to talk companionably and, yes, to savor the food. At Obed and Isaac’s, the host turned off the music in one room (the sound system having been presciently wired to make that possible) to accommodate me and another guy who agree that yelling at people when you’re not mad at them is loony unless you’re doing an infomercial. The welcome gesture was a reminder that pubs once were places to talk, not to get drunk or to party. George Orwell, who noted in his 1946 essay “The Moon Under Water” that the ideal pub possesses neither a radio nor a piano, would have left a nice tip.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at


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