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Feature Fri May 07 2010

Chicago Restaurants Turn Up the Tunes

by Garin Pirnia

provincebar_1f_1.jpgEver dined at a restaurant in Chicago and wondered who picked the musical soundtrack? A few local premiere restaurants eschew jukeboxes, DJs and Justin Bieber, realizing good music is as important as the food served.

"I've been making the playlists for almost two years now," Christopher McGauran, partner and marketing handler of mid-scale Lakeview neighborhood bistro Socca says. "Before that, we had a manager who would just pop in five CDs on a rotating carousel and press shuffle. And although his music taste wasn't that bad, he played the same CDs all of the time and just about drove everyone -- mostly the staff -- mad, not to mention he almost ruined Pete Yorn for me with all of the overkill."

A self-described music buff, McGauran cut his teeth in the music industry as an art director for the Evanston-based record label Aware Records in the '90s, and has been with Socca since its inception five years ago. He tries to be innovative, playing everything from burgeoning UK pop group Two Door Cinema Club, Ray Charles, the Latin flair of Julieta Venegas, and obscure electro like Goldspot for restaurant patrons while they nosh on shrimp pizzettes and foie gras. "With Socca, I am always trying to play music that is six to eight months ahead of the game," McGauran explains. "When you are there, you are usually listening to music that will break many months from that day. I like constantly changing moods, changing rhythms, mixing mellow with upbeat and acoustic with electronic." It's not trendy new stuff all the time, though. When Socca hosts special wine events, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ken Burns make iPod appearances. The eatery will eventually run two iPods: one that will play jazz-centric tunes in the restaurant area, and McGauran's fresh songs in the bar area.

Jeff Donahue, manager and beverage director of sustainable West Loop restaurant Province, mentions once he received a complaint from a customer for playing Jay-Z, but usually everything is accepted at the restaurant. After following former Nacional 27 chef/owner Randy Zweiban to Province a year and a half ago, Donahue took charge of the music. Working with co-worker and musician Dave Hiltebrand, they craft disparate iPod playlists using the online music service site Rhapsody. Hiltebrand's responsible for the jazz tunes, while Donahue's affections fall into the indie-rock category. "In general, if you go to restaurants in Chicago, the serving staff, especially at nicer restaurants, they're aligned with the artistic side of what a restaurant's doing, and similarly, I think they also have artistic passions," Donahue says. Instead of playing a bunch of random songs, he'll play entire albums. "A lot of times what I'll do is put on albums because it's more of a cohesive representation of a band. I tend to like bands that work on crafting albums instead of singles or individual songs." He sites LCD Soundsystem, Jamie Lidell, Magnetic Fields and Yo La Tengo as examples.

Whereas Province and Socca use staffers to manage the music, Boka Restaurant Group's co-owner Rob Katz outsources the musical duties to a New York-based music consulting company called Audiostiles. Running upscale establishments such as Perennial, Boka, Landmark Grille and Lounge and the highly anticipated summer opening of Stephanie Izard's Girl and the Goat are demanding enough without having to worry about whether to play Jack Johnson at brunch or at dinner. During Food and Wine Magazine's Best New Chefs 2008 ceremony honoring Boka chef Giuseppe Tentori in Aspen, Katz heard music he loved. He traced the affable tunes back to Jeremy Abrams, co-founder of Audiostiles and husband of "Top Chef" judge and Food and Wine contributor Gail Simmons. Serendipitously, Katz was in the middle of opening Perennial and immediately hired Abrams to compile hours and hours of music for Perennial's brunch and dinner services.

"We have what we call early dinner type of music which is going to be a little less energetic, perhaps a little more on the jazzy side of things and then sorta mid-dinner music which we pick up tempo, and late because it gets quite busy in this restaurant and we want a lot of energy," Katz explains. This entails everything from R&B sensations Erykah Badu and John Legend to the buoyancy of remix master Mark Ronson. "I'm really cognizant of how that music's making me feel while I'm eating: like 'turn that shit off' or 'I dig it' and it's not too loud and too in your face. It's always noticeable. It's like the lighting: is it too bright or is it too dark?" Katz feels purveyors like Audiostiles understand the restaurant business enough to provide the versatility Katz seeks in his award-winning restaurants.

Abrams emerged from VH1 and worked for a major label before inventing Audiostiles four years ago. In addition to restaurants, the company also designs play lists for hotels, boutiques and marketing events around the world. Katz tapped Abrams to shape the music for Girl and the Goat, which Katz says will be "far more eclectic with the clientele and with our personality, and therefore the music has to match that." Based on Katz's boundaries -- meaning nothing offensive like bubblegum or metal -- Abrams is working on music to the restaurant's liking. "They get a mixed crowd of older and younger diners, but it's an upscale restaurant and you don't want music to detract," Abrams says about Perennial. "In those places we're paying a lot of attention to what's appropriate, whereas Girl and the Goat could be a lot looser. We might play Zeppelin, but we're not going to play Stairway to Heaven."

Abrams mentions jazz is always a safe bet, as are the steady beats heard in R&B music. "You don't always have to prove that you're cool and cutting edge," he says. "The same way you're not always going to go [to a restaurant] in jeans, sometimes it's OK to dress up a little and listen to something not as everyday kinda thing."

Photo by Laurie Proffitt.

This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.


TW / May 8, 2010 1:20 AM

I will never think of restaurant music the same way again... Great article!

JW / May 10, 2010 12:45 PM

Interesting article. I couldn't help but think of the t-shirt that reads "I listen to bands that don't even exist yet" when Christopher McGauran was discussing the music he plays.

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