Restaurants spin music to get diners in mood for food

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Before opening, the team behind Asian Box, a build-your-own-bowl cafe in Palo Alto, Calif., hoped that executive chef Grace Nguyen’s authentic cuisine would transport guests to the bustling streets of Vietnam, where rickshaws kick up dust and pho carts pump basil steam high into the sky.

Restaurant entrepreneur Frank Klein knew that even the best lemongrass pork or tamarind-topped rice noodles weren’t enough to take them there. So, he called friend and musicologist Joel Selvin with a request.

“I want my restaurant to sound like a Saigon hooker’s boombox,” he told Selvin, founder of San Francisco’s The Selvin Collection, which helps restaurants source appropriate music.

Selvin and Elliott Peltzman, director of the Selvin Collection, mined 250,000 songs to find the perfect mix of Asian sonic-experimentation, from Japanese garage rock and Cambodian pop to Burmese folk music, that mirrored Asian Box’s culinary flavor.

The combination is working; the 4-month-old restaurant, helmed by a former Slanted Door chef, is thriving, and more cafes are in the planning stages.

Originally, decor defined a restaurant’s vibe. Now, restaurateurs increasingly are considering their music selections by turning to DJs and audio-branding experts to curate one-of-a-kind dining soundtracks.

“Just like you can touch the table and taste the food, we want to make sure we’re thoughtfully curating the music our guests hear,” says Patric Yumul, the president of Mina Group, which uses L.A.-based Playlist Generation to craft the personalities of San Francisco’s high-profile RN74 and Michael Mina restaurants.

Playlist Generation CEO Michael Smith equips each restaurant with a Mac mini linked to a sound system that he controls via Internet. Meanwhile, an iPhone app allows in-house staff to control tunes based on tempo and energy.

At Michael Mina, $98-hay-smoked cote du boeuf for two is complemented by eclectic cover songs, such as India.Arie doing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Etta James covering “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones.

“They are familiar songs, but with an exotic quality that provokes people,” Yumul says.

At RN74 in the Mission district, Yumul envisioned hipsters walking in and feeling like they’d just entered a friend’s house party, where they could sip a glass of Burgundy to indie electro pop by M83 and Empire of the Sun.

Just don’t call it background music. It’s “ambient coloration,” according to Selvin.

After years on the nightclub beat for the San Francisco Chronicle, he knows how music can match the mood of foie gras foam at Fleur de Lys or a burger at the now-defunct Clown Alley. For each client, he crafts a 24-hour playlist, or about 500 songs.

At El Paseo, the Sammy Hagar-Tyler Florence chophouse in Mill Valley, Calif., the tunes are raucous and horn-heavy R&B, like Archibald’s “Shake Shake Baby” and “Coleslaw” by Frank “Floorshow” Culley.

“Sammy calls it steak-eatin’ music,” Selvin says.

For the vegan charcuterie crowd at Berkeley’s Gather, co-owner and organic food visionary Eric Fenster sought a sonic identity as pure and comforting as the restaurant’s seasonally focused menu and natural, honey-hued color scheme.

“Our music folds well into our dining,” says Fenster, who looked to investing partner Darian Rodriguez Heyman, better known as DJ Hey Man, to craft a soundtrack of nonhit reggae, bluegrass and world music. “We wanted songs that weren’t too familiar or distracting and that fit the time and day of service.”

Brunch guests nibble on maple-strawberry cornmeal pancakes while an iPad, stationed near the bar, cranks out a Beatles B-side. At night, Fela Kuti and Thievery Corporation play, while chef Sean Baker treats heirloom carrots to a bath of chamomile and goat butter.

Like Gather, Local Cafe in Oakland, Calif., projects comfort and familiarity. As such, the self-proclaimed music sommeliers at Prescriptive Music in Woodland Hills, Calif., devised a classic rock playlist for the restaurant that reflected its Americana menu of pork chops, breakfast biscuits and brisket sandwiches.

However, after 13 years in audio-branding, founder Allen Klevens says he’s seeing a shift in music pairings. Instead of complementing a restaurant’s food, he and his staff of programmers are increasingly focused on its architectural design and overall vibe.

“Think about it: When you walk into a restaurant you rarely smell the food,” Klevens says. “You hear the music first.”

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