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The Sneaky Hack to Discover Your Next Favorite Restaurant
Hint: it involves a platform that has nothing to do with food…
It’s not hard to find restaurant recommendations these days. Apps, lists, algorithms, Reddit threads, you name it. At every turn, there seems to be a person, publication, or platform telling us where to dine. Helpful, maybe, but often overwhelming, too. Can’t there be a more effective entry-point? One that narrows the aperture and guarantees a good time?
Turns out, there just might be, and it’s got nothing to do with food. While Team Blackbird lunched at Tacombi’s Soho location the other day, we were struck by the ubiquitous taqueria’s tunes. Over the next hour a slew of music emanated from the speakers — Tropicália, AM Gold, Afrobeat, even some Fleetwood Mac deep cuts — all of it selected and sequenced with such care that suddenly a random Tuesday lunch in October felt transportive. When I asked our waitress if she knew the name of a particularly catchy song, she directed me to Tacombi’s Spotify page.
At Blackbird, we’re busy thinking of new and meaningful ways to access restaurants, which made us wonder: could Spotify be the low-key dining discovery hack we’ve been ignoring for all these years?
“A playlist is one of the most underrated ways for a restaurant to set a vibe,” says Kendra Borowski, a DJ and 20-year food and hospitality industry veteran who now runs her own eponymous PR agency. Kendra’s client Grand Army received so many customer DMs inquiring about their music that the Brooklyn restaurant created its own Spotify page.
Soon I found myself stumbling down a Spotify rabbit hole in search of others. There was midtown newcomer Pebble Bar slinging post punk ‘tude and Detroit soul. Mario Carbone serving up swagged-out midcentury bops on his “Carbone late” selection. And East Village Jamaican eatery Miss Lily’s curating just the type of dubby reggae one would want from such a place.
“The hotel and restaurant at the Saint Cecilia in Austin have truly great playlists,” says Colin James Nagy, who — among many other things — co-pilots Why Is This Interesting?, one of our favorite Substacks. “Orchard Music does their curation,” he adds, referring to a mix that leans heavily into disparate sounds, from slacker rock to Bill Evans.
However mood-enhancing, we think a restaurant’s playlists can point to things beyond a place’s vibe. Consider the logic: If a restaurant sweats their music, enough that they actually take the time to curate a Spotify account, doesn’t it stand to reason that they probably sweat many details, from the decor to the drinks to, yes, even the food? Creating soundtracks that take listeners on a journey is akin to cooking, and the very magic of hospitality itself — an amalgamation of flavors and gestures designed to surprise and delight.
For John Martin, CEO of newly revived rock rag Creem Magazine, as well as founder and former publisher of Vice food channel Munchies, it comes as no surprise that his favorite NYC restaurants also play his favorite records.
“Momofuku always has good music — the old Ssäm Bar used to be especially on point,” Martin says. “Frankies 457 always nails it, though it's hard not to when all you play are Stones and the Dead. Blanca may be the best though — letting the customers pick vinyl to play. Metallica's Master of Puppets? Black Sabbath's first album? Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast? Yes, that all pairs well with your meal.”
Or, sometimes, the music doesn’t pair with the food at all. Renowned Japanese composer and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto discovered this at two of his favorite NYC restaurants — Kokage and Kajitsu, both now shuttered but formerly housed in a split level space on 39th Street just off Lexington Avenue. The prolific songwriter, an alum of seminal Japanese electropop act YMO, found the background music so bland, so incongruous with the quality of the food, that one afternoon he left early, returned home to his West Village apartment, and composed an email to the restaurants’ owner, proposing that he take over playlist duties. From that point until their recent closure, both restaurants streamed the same playlist selected by Sakamoto — a collection of thoughtful, idiosyncratic ambient tracks meant to compliment the bright rooms and sublime Shojin cuisine.
Sadly, a restaurant’s playlist cannot save it from the harsh economics of this industry, especially when the ramifications of a pandemic can still be felt. But music is another avenue to consider when trying to wade through the glut of restaurant recommendations. Perk up those ears, and you just might discover your new favorite place to dine out.
The Essential Restaurant Playlists:
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
Thanks for reading! Blackbird will launch in select restaurants later this year. In the meantime, if you dug this, please give it a like! We’re also on Twitter and would love to hear from you there.