The only times I notice the music in a restaurant are when it's really bad (Christmas music playing year round at Sichuan Cuisine), really out of place (Nine Inch Nails blaring out of the speakers at now-closed Tony Vallone joint Ciao Bello or Cannibal Corpse washing over the line of patrons at Amy's Ice Cream) or terrifically good.
The last category is far more difficult to find, as most restaurants focus -- rightly so -- on many other facets of the dining experience (the food, the service, keeping your water glass filled, etc.) ahead of the music. However, there are a handful of excellent exceptions to this rule.
In keeping with its locavore roots, chef Randy Evans's restaurant has an entirely Texan playlist, from Willie Nelson to Lyle Lovett. The only thing keeping it from being higher on the list is the fact that its portfolio of Texas artists could stand to be diversified: Let's hear some Selena or Lightnin' Hopkins, some Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison, some Toadies or even Polyphonic Spree. Texas has a great musical heritage aside from just country-and-western music.
The excellent music selection is one of the first things I noticed about Coppa on my initial visit: Sam Cooke blended into The Black Keys, with the overall balance of the playlist heavy on classic Motown and old-school soul that matches the soulful cooking coming out of chef Brandi Key's kitchen.
Your friendly neighborhood Asian fusion bistro plays the soundtrack to my own life, so I'm more than just a little biased here. From all the gloriously mopey college radio shit I used to listen to in the late 1990s and early 2000s straight through to the indie shit I listen to now, Nabi seems to have a direct line into the area of my cerebral cortex that contains my musical tastes. That covers everything from Wilco to Arcade Fire, Radiohead to The XX, which all somehow fits perfectly with oxtail dumplings, bulgogi and cheap sake.
Just like Haven, Underbelly focuses on the local as much as possible (naturally, as chef/owner Chris Shepherd was trained under Randy Evans while the pair were still at Brennan's). That means art from Carlos Hernandez when you walk in the door and drawings from folks like Kelly Phillips, Matthew Tabor and Ack! inside the wine list as well as local artists like Benjamin Wesley and Robert Ellis on the speakers.
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SHOW ME HOW
1. El Gran Malo
When I asked our Twitter followers what their favorite restaurant playlist was, "EL GRAN MALO!!!!1!" was the overwhelming response. And with good reason: The mix there includes a bounty of diverse artists from Fito y Fitipaldis and Huecco to The Walkmen and Passionn Pit. The restaurant even has its playlist available on Spotify (as user "El Gran Malo") should you want to take the tunes with you after you leave. I've had it as my soundtrack at work for the past few days and am loving every Pavement-and-Pepe Aguilar-filled minute of it.