When Carlos Alzaola dips in and out of the various indoor and outdoor zones of the Cloverfield in Santa Monica and surveys the scene, a sixth sense tells the assistant general manager what sounds the crowd needs to subliminally enhance their dining experience.
Restaurants still struggle post-pandemic and are constantly coming up with strategies to bring in new and returning customers. Because dining out is a multi-sensory experience, a huge amount of time, money and consideration is put into restaurant playlists. Many say that it makes the difference between one mimosa and a bottomless brunch.
In addition to his regular managerial duties, Alzaola spends almost an hour daily on compiling the lists made up of different artists and styles, relative to the vibe of the day or night.
“Depending on if people are enjoying the moment, it tells me if I should switch over to another list or not,” the former Patina chef, who spent years absorbing the sounds of the Walt Disney Hall and Hollywood Bowl, tells L.A. Weekly. “It really depends on the flow of the day. On Fridays, I love to play acid jazz, Herbie Hancock and John Scofield. People come in at the end of the week for a chill vibe at sunset. At brunch I let the kitchen pick the music. The servers get here real early and they want to listen to their music and it plays throughout the restaurant inside and out to help get them started. Then I’ll change it up again for the afternoon crowd. On weekends a lot of families come in and like to listen to familiar songs and many want to discover new music. It’s just a feeling. I want it to be ever-changing. Volume has a lot to do with it too, especially for the older clientele. They come in to dine and talk, it’s not Vegas or Miami. Then again, later at night after people have had a few drinks the vibe changes and so does the music and maybe the volume.”
Born in Cuba with close ties to the Buena Vista Social Club, Alzaola notes that Latin jazz is especially popular on current playlists across Los Angeles. His tastes lean toward hip hop, acid jazz, and bebop because they all mix together well. Most of the songs are instrumental or with no lyrics because that can be distracting in a restaurant. When he does pick songs with lyrics they are usually in Spanish, providing a soft and gentle background.
“When I first got here everybody on the staff was coming to me with different suggestions, trying to take over the music,” he says while mixing an Aviation cocktail behind the bar. “If you are really interested in music, you need to have knowledge of all different kinds of music. I’m more than happy to listen to suggestions, but if those names are always the same, it’s hard to get a good reaction out of that. I ask, ‘Listen, do you know who Duke Ellington is? Charlie Parker? Charles Mingus?” Those people are part of American culture and the ABC of any DJ and it’s important to know who they are. If you don’t recognize any of those names, you can’t be part of the process. The bar is pretty high here.”
For others, like Andrew Wintner who owns Talea Tailored Music Solutions, playlists are big business. Wintner and his team of curators work with hospitality groups like the Viceroy Hotels, The London Hotel, Tocaya Organica, Toca Madera, Hotel Figueroa,Lettuce Entertain You (Stella Barra in Santa Monica), Palisociety (Palihouse, Palihotel and their restaurants) as well as Sweetflower, the largest owned multi-location cannabis shop in LA. Talea just completed an installation in Mexico for a private resort attached to the Montage called Maravilla Los Cabos that had 40 zones of music, requiring 40 unique concepts.
“Over the years as the streaming services come out, people are a lot more aware and opinionated about music than they used to be,” says Wintner, who credits what he learned about music to his time working with hospitality guru Rande Gerber. “Everybody’s got a Spotify account to build their own playlists. People are paying more attention to it when they’re in restaurants – not just customers but restaurant owners, hoteliers and chefs. They are all aware of the impact the music has on the business.”
With that sophistication in the public’s musical tastes, a lot of the playlist is also about discovering new music.
“When I’m in a space that we are curating music for and I see customers raise their phone up to the speakers to Shazam a song, that’s just the biggest compliment you can get,” says Wintner, whose company also programs the music for the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. “That means they like it and they want to know what it is and plays a role in whether they come in again or order another Manhattan.”
Fine tuning that process involves many questions and conversations with clients. They could be looking for energy, driving food and beverage or extra drinks, or they’re looking for familiar sounds or discovery. Some of the hotels Talea works with can have up to eight different concepts per hotel, like the lobby bar, two restaurants, the spa, the pool that all need their own music. Hotel Figueroa wanted cool, mostly discovery driven, electronic, good energy music playing in the hotel’s food and beverage outlets. There’s one out by the pool and one in the lobby and they both need different music.
It’s all about the senses.
“People feel better when they are enjoying all of their senses,” the sound architect says. “You go to a restaurant and have a great meal, the food tastes good, you’re happy, the service is good, the design is visually interesting, the seats are comfortable. All those touchpoints – everything from the silverware to the napkins – it all matters. But the music literally touches everything. If you have bad music, it ruins all of those other things that the designers and the chefs worked so hard to perfect.”
On the flip side in the vinyl district, you’ll find another one of the city’s best playlists at Thompson Hotel. Curated by Sebastian Puga, Executive Vice President of Brand Experience at Ten Five Hospitality, three very distinct global playlists for very different moods fill the air at the Terrace, Bar Lis and the new Mes Amis.
“At Bar Lis and the Terrace at Thompson, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted to create,” says Puga. “It’s a cote d’Azur, south of France 1960s inspired lounge that derives from the idea of making an imaginary place that never existed into a reality. It’s finding that perfect blend of what’s vintage and what’s modern. The music on the rooftop is very worldly and thought out – there’s Latin, there’s funk, jazz, soul, Italian, and French. If you’re having a good time you’re going to stay and if you’re going to stay you’ll likely order dessert or an extra appetizer.”
At Bar Lis, there are DJs nightly with a different format in the evening because people are coming for cocktails and dancing and those playlists are offered online. For the newly opened French bistro on the property, Mes Amis, Puga spent two weeks working for hours and days on the music that went through five edits, listening to it in the space with the lights, food and other touchpoints that make the experience a whole.
“We want you to be able to put your sunglasses on and listen to Françoise Hardy, order something for lunch and linger and feel like you’re in the south of France or on the Italian coast,” he says.
With some cajoling, if you hear a playlist you fall in love with, most restaurants will share the soundtrack with you as a parting gift.
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