Imagine you’re sat down to dinner in your favourite haunt. Now list off all of the things that make it your top spot. The food, sure. The decor, without question. But isn’t one of the reasons the overall atmosphere, the vibe, the feel of the place? Enter sound.
Restaurant culture is a sensory affair—it hits all of them from scent and sound, and not least of all taste. Earlier this summer in The Luxurist, we launched The Sound of LuxDeco where we dig deep into the experience of sound design with LuxDeco’s Chief Creative Officer Jon Sharpe (check out our Spotify playlists too if you haven’t already). And now that many of the world’s restaurants are inching open their doors once more, what better environment to focus on next?
Studying sound—listen out for it in more ways than one
First thoughts, when speaking of sound, will almost always be channeled towards music. It’s the most obvious, and typically the most ambience-affecting experience of sound there is. This is especially so in a restaurant.
A themed restaurant that’s perhaps speakeasy in style with Art Deco influences thrown left, right and centre, will have its Gatsby influence heightened with a playlist that centres around soft jazz. Switch that genre to hip hop and you quickly find that the interior design underpinning the establishment falls short. It simply cannot go it alone. Such is the power of sound.
Similarly, take the example of a classic British establishment such as The Ritz or Claridge’s where the decor is the epitome of English elegance and the entire experience pivots around gentility and refinement. It’s customary to have a grand piano playing in the background as you sip tea or even a string quartet soothing you into another finger sandwich. Why? Because live, classical musical is the very best accompaniment to the decor and what it means to dine here. It is as complementary as the clotted cream to the warm-from-the-oven scone. LuxDeco Studio's Interior Design Director, Linda Holmes summarises:
The best musical vibe for a restaurant is one which makes sense to the environment, the cuisine and the etiquette of the restaurant.
Music momentarily to one side, recall too the other sounds heard while dining away from home. Depending on the character of the place, the functional noises emanating from the kitchen contribute positively. Examples include when dining at the chef’s table where you may watch a master at work. Here, the heavy thud of the knife on the board, the roar of the furnace that is the wood-fired stove, the call of fellow cooks to one another as they work as a well-oiled machine, provide buzz as you immerse yourself in the thick of it.
The relationship between sound and restaurant interior design
All of the layers that comprise interior design as an intricately woven as the finest piece of fabric. When designing for a restaurant, there is much to consider in how and where sound will play out, and in what ways the interior can maximise and minimise the musicality of the place, as Linda Holmes details:
“Music is probably one of the more subconscious inspirations of interior design. A lot of the same elements of interior design are found in music: rhythm, harmony, repetition, movement. Music and design are very much connected. And in the same way a musician will combine all of these musical techniques to create sound-based ambience, designers combine design elements and principles to create physical ambience. Then, when combined, the two really complement one another.”
“Of course, sound goes beyond music and it isn’t always good. There are plenty of bad sounds found in a restaurant, particularly because hospitality spaces tend to use more hard surfaces and that results in sharp noises, clanging and sound reverberation. The goal of the designer when creating schemes for restaurants is to make sound an asset, not a liability, by making sensible use of materials, creating smaller, more intimate spaces and installing a great sound system.”
Social distancing measures aside, the spacing between tables is a key consideration in a restaurant’s design too. Place them side by side and you can expect the character of the place to be much more convivial, contrasting a scheme of tables which are spaced apart and where the murmur of conversation travels much less and the atmosphere becomes far more intimate.
In conversation with Shayne Brady—challenges and considerations in designing with sound
Co-founder of London design studio BradyWilliams, which specialises in retail and hospitality projects, Shayne spoke to us about the particular challenges that he and his team have found most prevalent when creating interiors for restaurants, cafes and bars. Having designed some of the capital’s most esteemed eateries—from the white, bright and minimalist retreat that is Bond Street’s Hix Residency to the maximalist Rockwell in Trafalgar Square—he knows a thing or two about the limitations of noise and the opportunities of audio. He comments:
“Sound is crucial in setting the exact tone for a space. Loud, buzzy, energetic music immediately gives a vigour and excitement to the air and therefore diners are more exaggerated, flamboyant, and full of energy. Laid-back, sultry music sets a tone for indulgent evenings but at a more relaxed pace. Music is essential to get the vibe going at the start of service—creating a buzz to ensure that the restaurant doesn’t feel cold, empty and sterile as customers fill up the space.
“We design restaurants to enable people to escape temporarily into the worlds we create. There is nothing more distracting or irksome than the clattering of noise in the background. In Bob Bob Cite, an open ceiling allowed for sound to be carried away which was crucial due to the hard, man-made floor throughout.
“Acoustics are imperative to a successful interior and something we consider from the outset. For instance when designing with our longstanding client Corbin & King, we will always consider the acoustics of any new restaurant as early as possible in the design. There is a fine line between a noisy, buzzy restaurant and a loud, irritating restaurant. Corbin & King’s restaurant The Wolseley is a perfect example of the former and something we try to achieve in every restaurant we design for them. We always consider acoustic plaster on the ceiling to absorb sound, felt on the underside of tables, and suggest considering the use of drapery where possible, and even carpeting certain areas as we did in Soutine retrospectively to control noise levels.”
On location—three of my top sound-savvy spots
As lockdown eases, there are a number of locations to which my mind has been flocking, to revisit memories of my best restaurant experiences—one more far-flung in the direction of the Hollywood Hills and the other two closer to home here in London where the audio atmosphere is second to none.
First up, Amazónica in Mayfair whose hotly anticipated opening was only to be enjoyed for a matter of months before it was forced to shut its doors. Having reopened on 4th July, this waitlist-heavy location is known for its sensory story that is said to leave its guests feeling as though they’re floating down the Amazon river. From decor to dishes and the DJ sets that have perhaps defined it most, this is a Latin American landscape in every sense (literally).
Image Credit: Amazonico Restaurant
Next, Bob Bob Cité in the Leadenhall Building designed by the aforementioned BradyWilliams. Electronic indeed with its dazzling lights (1200 bulbs in fact) and mirrored surfaces and yet its menu is French brasserie. That’s what I love about the place—it’s full of contradictions and surprises; it hates to conform. Sat in diner-like banquettes, you’d expect a jukebox to call the music shots, but I often don’t even notice what’s playing as here is a restaurant where the chitter chatter and the buzz is as electrifying as the decor.
And finally, I can close my eyes and easily picture myself at the tiny and terribly chic marble counter at LA’s Petit Trois. Yes, the decor was as dreamy as you’d expect being designed by LA-based designer Brigette Romanek, and, yes, I dined on Trout Almondine with praline Paris-Brest for pudding, but it was the distinctive sound of understated French hip-hop that almost stuck with me more. It took this French fancy to a new dimension that was less accordion and more achingly cool.
I caught up with Romanek to discuss her thoughts on the sound issue. “It’s a crucial part of the ambience. It can make or break the mood you’re trying to convey,” she assures me, “If the music is right, even the food tastes better. If it has the wrong feel, it can bring the vibe and energy down.”
As it happens, she is not only a white-hot designer, she also has a close personal connection to music—she herself lives in what was once a recording studio for everyone from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. “My own house has musical history. I can feel it,” she reveals, hinting at music’s power even once the last chord has been played or the rooms fall silent.
She explains her favourite musical vibe for a restaurant this way: “I can describe it best by expressing what I look for in the experience. Is it fine dining? Is it a bar with food? Sushi? Etc. In other words, I like music that’s tailored to enhance, to elevate that environment [and] experience and not be disruptive. Just music that’s present enough to bring the experience home.”
So wherever it may be that you’ve dined your greatest, next time you visit listen out for and savour too the satisfying sound of the clink of glasses with good company, the cutlery clatter as the crescendo signalling the finale of a delectable dish, and laughter—three musical accompaniments that do a good restaurant make.
Header Image: Amazonico Restaurant