We had decided to take a chance on a new restaurant on the BeltLine, and by almost all measures it felt like a win. The space was gorgeous, the service was airtight, and the food and drinks were some of the best we’d tasted all year. But early on, something was clearly wrong. My girlfriend shot me a baffled look.
“What is this music?” she asked.
I had no answer for her then, and I still don’t. You could’ve called it elevator pop, if they had elevators in hell. We were legitimately disappointed in our overall experience for this one misstep. Leaving the place was a relief.
This happens far too often. Restaurant owners will exert a tremendous amount of effort to seduce your senses, but when it comes to choosing the music, it seems their protocol is to click on a generic Pandora station and assume that no one in the dining room has ears.
A few days later, I found myself at Gaja in East Atlanta Village, sitting beneath a row of white banners painted with the lyrics (in Korean) to the Ramones’ “Commando.” The Clash careened out of the restaurant’s speakers. It felt like the Earth had righted itself.
Clearly, I thought, whoever was running this place had put some thought into the playlist. That person is Danny Song.
“I’d rather have no music, and just the sound of the people in here, than bad music,” says Song, who opened Gaja in 2015 with his brother Tim and then-chef Allen Suh.
Gaja bills itself as “The Only Korean Punk Bar in the World,” and the name itself is Korean for “let’s go,” an homage to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” As you enter through a discreet metal door, it feels—and sounds—like you’ve stumbled into an underground rock club. Song plays music through an iPod that’s loaded not just with punk music but also garage rock and power pop that are punk in spirit.
“We cater to the theme of the restaurant without pissing off the guests,” Song says. “I think in the checklist of opening a restaurant, people should put a little more effort into the music selection, especially if the food and service are perfect. Just hearing Meat Loaf can ruin the whole night.”
“If I hear ‘Float On’ by Modest Mouse at a restaurant, I know that they just absolutely don’t care about ambiance,” Smith says.
A longtime musician himself (you can find his old punk band, the Carbonas, on the Gaja iPod), Smith jumped on the opportunity to curate the playlists for his restaurants. Kimball House is a bonafide French-American bistro, down to the scent of absinthe lingering around the bar, and there’s a timeless feel to its stately, candle-lit dining room. Smith gives it an appropriately classic soundtrack, from early Southern soul to ’60s French pop. At Watchman’s, where vibrant seafood dishes are served in a beachy dining room accented by hanging plant baskets and aqua blue tabletops, Smith takes a more abstract approach.
“I try to use the color palate to kind of drive what the playlist is,” Smith says. Over the course of a meal, you might hear the washed-out blues of the Grateful Dead fade into the bright, snappy, post-punk of the Buzzcocks. “I try not to do the most obvious thing. We’ve had some music from the Caribbean, and it’s fun, but it also makes it feel like we’re trying too hard.”
Restaurateur Ian Jones doesn’t mind leaning into a theme. When he and his business partner Caleb Wheelus first saw the space that would become Little Trouble on the Westside, Jones took note of the entrance: a long, menacing concrete hallway in the underbelly of a posh, two-story shopping plaza. To many, it would have looked like a poor business decision; to Jones, it looked like a bar where the bad guys in action movies hang out.
“We’re consciously picking tunes that fit that vibe,” he says. Most nights at Little Trouble, electronic music pulses throughout the crowded, neon-lit barroom like the soundtrack to a John Wick shootout.
“We’re not in there banging trap music,” Jones says. “Not that that’s something we don’t like; it just isn’t right for the place.” Little Trouble’s playlist leans toward “more synthy ’80s kind of stuff,” he says, “or new, sparse ambient stuff. It’s that side of us.”
You can find another side of them at LLoyd’s, their retro, Midwest-inspired bar in Inman Park, which features vintage beer signs, lots of wood paneling, and a playlist stacked with honky-tonk and trippy ’70s Americana. There’s also the duo’s first restaurant, Victory Sandwich Bar, which just might be—to borrow from Gaja—the only rock-and-roll sandwich bar in the world.
“Instead of telling people, ‘Yeah, we’re really rock-and-roll,’ you just play the Misfits, and people get it,” Jones says.
Over at the acclaimed Staplehouse, chef Ryan Smith’s seasonal tasting-menu spot in Old Fourth Ward, the 12-course menu changes every week, which means you might not think the team spends hours crafting the perfect playlist. Think again.
“It’s such an important thing to the overall vibe,” says chef de cuisine Jake Politz. “If the cooks are in a good rhythm, if everybody is feeling it, it translates to the food.”
To keep that rhythm alive, the owners of Staplehouse encourage the staff to contribute their own playlists, both for dinner service and for the hours they spend together prepping for it. The result is eclectic and surprising. Who knew chicken liver tart would pair so well with Wu-Tang Clan?
“If you go to your friend’s house, they generally have a specific taste in music,” Politz says. “They set a vibe. The same premise goes for here.”
Chef Terry Koval, who with his wife, Jenn, launched the Deer and the Dove in June, says they debated how to best match the Decatur restaurant’s music to its mood. “We have this San Francisco vibe,” he says, “and I just wanted to play John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock.”
“I’m more of a lo-fi gal,” says Jenn. “I wanted to be playing Sonic Youth, that type of thing, so it’s trying to find that happy medium.”
The Kovals found common ground in 80s acts like the Smiths and Joy Division, and in a shared belief that, no matter the genre, the music should reflect their personalities without slipping into extremes.
“It’s got to make sense for us,” Terry says. “That’s the beauty of owning your own joint. It’s a representation of who you are.”