by Ben Shine
Nowadays my friends talk as much about the restaurants they're currently eating at as the albums that they're listening to and the books they're reading. Restaurants contribute to Indy's cultural scene. Like world-class symphonies, cool local music venues, art galleries and bookstores, food culture makes our city a more relevant, interesting place to live. Just this week, two local chefs were nominated for James Beard Regional Awards, bringing cachet and esteem to our now-on-the-map culinary scene. From fancy plates to ramen bowls, dining out in Indianapolis has never been such a fun adventure.
But we have a problem.
Amazing restaurants pop up all the time. They feature meticulously designed interiors. Walls wear wood reclaimed from all over the world. Menus and ingredient lists are slaved over and food is lovingly paired with drinks to sate all sorts of foodies. Then you sit in front of a beautifully plated dish, and boom! -- REO Speedwagon starts blaring or some other insanely obnoxious music played at entirely inappropriate volumes. The music doesn't match the mastery on the table, and it's time we did something about it. Fortunately, I'm here to help.
I'm going to share some all too common experiences with music in local eateries and offer a few tips to address the problem.
Scenario #1: You want to enjoy your plate of amazing poutine (or fries with gravy and cheese curds, if you will) and your pint of Indiana beer while you wait on your burger, but it's impossible to do so when you're being subjected to the spiraling, tinny sound of the entire second set of a 1980s Grateful Dead concert, and probably a 10th-generation tape to boot. We're not talking choice cuts here. We're talking full concert -- Drums and Space included, and boy, some real out-of-tune singing.
Solution #1: Mix it up! You wouldn't serve a plate of all root vegetables, so don't just serve an entire service of just one band's music -- especially a live recording, and especially if that band is as divisive as the Grateful Dead.
Scenario #2: You meet a group of friends for pricey, complicated mixologist cocktails and small plates in Indy's hippest neighborhood, and you spend the entire night repeating, "what?" or nodding in agreement to friends as if you could understand what they were saying over the booming soundtrack of the bartender's evening.
Solution #2: I like loud music as much as the next guy, and I have the hearing damage to prove it, but I go to watering holes to be with my people. Whoever's in charge of the front of house should make sure that the decibels don't drown out the possibility for social connection that dining with friends provides. Want to hear loud music? Go to one of the dozens of amazing shows that happen all of the time these days in Indy.
Scenario #3: You go to a casual, yet inventive hot dining spot to try out some new innovative takes on classic dishes from one of the city's most visionary chefs, but then you're greeted with one of the least inventive soundtracks imaginable -- classic rock. We're not talking deep cuts, we're talking all the songs you heard blasting from every Camaro ever in the '70s and '80s in the Midwest.
Solution #3: A restaurant's soundtrack should match the vibe and coolness of the room and the menu. A bad musical accompaniment is just as disruptive to a meal as an off-kilter wine pairing. It matters, and knowing that the chef has put as much thought and creativity into the experience of eating the food as she did into preparing the dish can really elevate the meal.
"You eat with your eyes first" is a well-known adage among chefs. Maybe some of these young guns can learn a lesson from my friends at the Red Key. It may be a celebrated dive, but the owners and staff know who they are and the music selection matches the space, the vibe, the drinks and the menu (only served until 10 p.m. and including, arguably, the best burger in town). It's not about being the coolest or entertaining the staff. It's about creating a whole experience.
That's the main takeaway restaurants should learn here.