Soundtrack To A Meal: Chicago Restaurants And Their Music

September 7, 2011 6:00 AM

Girl & the Goat


Restaurant owners have more to think about than simply the food when it comes to putting together a good experience for their customers. One part, which often gets overlooked by critics: music. I spoke with some of the people at popular Chicago restaurants who choose what people listen to while they eat.
Longman & Eagle


Longman and Eagle

2657 N. Kedzie Ave.
A Michelin-starred gastropub in Logan Square:

The restaurant’s initial concept, said Pete Toalson, owner of Longman & Eagle, was to “reference corner saloons and taverns from years past.” The man behind indie music venue the Empty Bottle, Toalson plays a wide range of tunes: “78s from [Enrico] Caruso to barrelhouse blues, jazz, combining traditional stuff with aggressive contemporary things that we felt wouldn’t be played elsewhere. Music from the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, punctuated with … weird outsider stuff that’s very contemporary and of the moment.”
The music, Toalson says, is a “pretty important component to overall experience,” and it was key that the music wouldn’t be heard in other restaurant contexts. Having dinner in most places, it’s “rare you’d hear [1970s and ‘80s punk rock band] Black Flag.” He wanted to play music that would intrigue diners “enough to pay attention.”
“The employees would rather not hear the old-timey stuff—they’re, like, 24, and they just wanna hear Animal Collective,” Toalson says. “And at dinners on Friday or Saturday, we can’t blast people out. We’ve also seen some really cool early-evening and late-night situations, with people hanging out and drinking whiskey and listening to old jazz piano.”

Big Star

1531 Damen Ave
An über-trendy Wicker Park taco and margarita joint with a huge outdoor seating area:

“So the idea of Big Star began with the migration of working-class people from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and other states to California – specifically, Los Angeles and the Central Valley,” says beer manager Ben Fasman. “This migration was primarily in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, and after that migration, two of country music’s greatest heroes developed their sound: Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. The Texas/California connection has always been strong in country music, and it is at Big Star. Much of Southern California used to be Mexico, and the influence of Mexican immigrants in both California and Texas in general is undeniable. So, the food, liquor, and beer program at Big Star were informed by the synergy of Mexican, Texas, and Californian influence.”

Big Star often welcomes DJs, from Yo La Tengo to famed Chicago record collectors Dante Carfagna and Courtland Green, to spin their versions of the country music and blues that influenced today’s rock and roll, Fasman explains. “Our DJs are selected because they have deep knowledge of the places where those three meet. The country elements at Big Star are ever-present, but we like to give our DJs some room to stretch out and play more than just country and blues. Playing ZZ Top, for example, a blues-influenced Texas rock band, makes perfect sense within our lineage, and getting knowledgeable selectors to expand and explore country, blues, and rock and roll in its various forms, is important to us. We never like to get too heavy—playing metal, etc.—and likewise we don’t like to get too soft – we want the music played to have at least somewhat of an edge to it. Some DJs have explored the Mexican influence a bit and played some early salsa and Latin funk music coming out of California in the early ‘70s.”

The Purple Pig


The Purple Pig

500 North Michigan Ave.
A small-plates Mediterranean-style restaurant with an extensive wine list, right on the Magnificent Mile:

The music goes with the food and the ambiance, says The Purple Pig General Manager John Wilkerson, who oversees the music selection, which ranges from Motown to jazz to classic rock to Michael Jackson. “We go with what feels good,” Wilkerson explains – the philosophy of one of the owners, Jimmy Bannos, is that the food should be fun. “We don’t play any seriously depressing music,” says Wilkerson. “The food is happy, and the customers are happy,” so the music tends to follow that way of thinking.

soundtracks onesixtyblue Soundtrack To A Meal: Chicago Restaurants And Their Music


one sixtyblue

1400 West Randolph St.
A West Loop fine-dining spot, featuring contemporary American food and craft cocktails and beer:

“Our music is a library of songs that we are continually adding to that is controlled by a wireless application,” says general manager Cari Anderson. “It is divided into time frames, starting and ending the night with more mellow songs and moving into more upbeat selections in the peak hours.”

The music library started with a former waiter, who put together a five-CD compilation. But then the restaurant worked with a DJ/sound engineer, Lonnie Bonds, “who edited the songs for restaurant readiness and installed the wireless system,” and he often adds songs to the repertoire.

“With Cari’s input and my DJ experience,” says Bonds, who had been the resident DJ for a long-running weekly promotion at one sixtyblue, “we worked to create a soundscape that matched the energy of the room by hour. The music is upbeat, fun, tasteful, and edgy. It is a diverse range of modern rock, early electronic classics, and soul that mutually compliment the fine dining, bar, and outdoor patio options available at one sixtyblue.”

Bonds also developed a unique music delivery system for the restaurant. “It allows us the structure of a traditional CD system without the rigidity and the flexibility of an Internet-based provider without being wildly random. Hundreds of song options are hand selected for each hour of operation. They are then edited, mixed, and assigned a time frame in which they can play. The result is a well-flowing mix of music that is never the same twice – which has been well received by frequent guests and much appreciated by the staff.”

Girl & the Goat


Girl & the Goat

809 W. Randolph St.
Top Chef–winner Stephanie Izard’s trendy West Loop small-plates spot:

Jeremy Abrams of New York City–based Audiostiles, which creates personalized music lists for restaurants, hotels, and events, chose the music for Girl & the Goat. Abrams also happens to be Top Chef judge Gail Simmons’s husband, but that’s not how he got involved with Izard’s restaurant: he’d worked closely with the restaurant’s owners (Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm) before on other projects, including BOKA and Perennial.

“When they opened this,” Abrams says, “they were pretty clear about how they wanted something unique and different from other restaurants.” They wanted to do “something fun and original,” something that reflected the food and the atmosphere.

“There’s quite a bit of kind of alternative/rock, stuff like—I’ll name some of the more known artists—Florence and the Machines, Franz Ferdinand, we have Arcade Fire, those kinds of bands.” They also play “older” stuff, the Cure, we have New Order, and then also the in between, bands like Oasis or Nirvana or Pearl Jam. You’ll also find some rap playing over the sound system, including the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Jay-Z, A Tribe called Quest. In the pop genre, they’ll play Michael Jackson, Mika, George Michael, Ellie Goulding, Empire of the Sun. Even with such a huge range, Abrams says, there’s a “similar energy, so songs flow.”

The high-energy, rhythmic flow of the music mimics what Izard does in the kitchen. “What Stephanie does is pretty interesting and eclectic, but it’s also comfortable,” Abrams says. “We wanted it to be a fun place where stay for a few extra drinks or hang out by the bar or whatever it is.” And, for all of the guests, no matter the age, “everyone at one point will hear one of [his or her] old favorite songs.”

What music would you prefer to hear at your next restaurant dining experience? Sound off in the comments section below.
Ruthie Kott, CBS Chicago

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