San francisco restaurants

Exploring the connection between music and food in San Francisco restaurants

At last week’s SF Chefs event, Saturday’s big tasting was a blend of the culinary and musical worlds, which made me think more about how these areas are connected. Participating chefs were asked to choose a song and create dishes that matched the melody (Bluestem Brasserie chef Francis Hogan easily won the award for best fit, choosing “I Fought The Law” from The Clash to accompany its dish of foie gras).

More Bay Area restaurants are playing music during service, an unpopular trend for some. Some reviewers say the music is too loud it ruins their dining experience and they can’t hear what is playing. I always felt that music played an important dynamic and could even be a conversation starter in a group.

The restaurant group Ne Timeas (flour + water, Central Kitchen, Salumeria) has fully explored the connection between music and catering. In fact, they have their own music director, Katie Mathis, who creates daily playlists at each restaurant. “I think the band specifically wanted the music to be a big part of every restaurant,” Mathis said. “It all started with one of our owners doing the music selections and then it included the entire staff, each creating their own playlist. They were looking for someone to take over and I think they liked the music I chose.

Mathis, who works as a night waitress at flour + water, says she has themes in mind and then selects artists to fulfill that theme. The albums are played from beginning to end and printed each evening.

“I get tons of comments. I think everyone has an opinion about music,” she said.

Ryan Pollnow, executive chef at Central Kitchen, said the playlists “match the general vibe of each restaurant.” Pollnow said that despite the fancy food coming from the kitchen, the goal has always been to create a fun and lighthearted vibe.

However, not everyone agrees with the attitude of the restaurant group. In particular, San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer, in his latest review of Central Kitchen, said “even when the place is packed, you can hear every note playing on the PA system to the detriment of the ability to talk across the table,” and “I’m generally tolerant of loud restaurants, but Central Kitchen is one of the worst I’ve ever encountered. Pollnow and Mathis note that they sometimes receive complaints about the music from guests and, at their request, always lower the volume.

Perhaps one person who exemplifies the music-food nexus best is Bill Corbett, executive pastry chef for The Absinthe Group. Not only does he make wonderful pastries and desserts, but he’s also the lead singer of the band Dead Seeds. “Music keeps me moving in the kitchen,” he said. “It doesn’t really play an inspirational role when it comes to creating the food, but it does put me in a better mood and excite me.”

Corbett said he normally listens to music that’s a bit faster or heavier while he’s at work, such as Hot Snakes, Fugazi or Doomriders. But he is also “rather democratic” in the kitchen. “I don’t always choose the music. Nobody else really likes the music I make, so my cooks are a bit tortured.

Like many chefs, Corbett said he has no problem with music in restaurants and believes that if chosen wisely, it helps set the tone for the dining experience. But he agrees with many that it should never be louder than a conversation.

One of my favorite sushi restaurants in San Francisco also has one of the most eclectic selections of cuts. ICHI Sushi in Bernal Heights can go from hip hop to soft rock and almost everything in between.

“We’re keeping up the pace to maintain a fun vibe for everyone,” said owners Tim and Erin Archuleta. “Sometimes you feel like Hall and Oates and sometimes you feel like De La Soul.” This attitude carries over to all the staff, who provide excellent service with a friendly smile.

Chef Archuleta said whoever accesses the iPod first chooses the tracks during preparation and it always serves as inspiration, with the beat of the music setting the pace of the preparation.

So what is the real connection between music and food? They are both works of art and very independent forms of expression. A chef may take a certain ingredient and think of a starter to make, while someone else may think it works better as a dessert. Same with musicians – a beat might be ideal for a hip hop song, while a rock band might use it under a bed of lyrics. As Corbett said, food and music “move people.” Mathis describes them as “very sensory experiences”. As a fan of both, listening to great music and eating great food are wonderful, singular experiences – but for me, it’s even better together.

Main photo credit: Central kitchen