Erik Bruner-Yang has earned plenty of praise for his Taiwanese-style ramen since opening Toki Underground in 2011, but if you linger long enough at the bar of his hip noodle shop on H Street NE, you begin to notice how the chef relies on much more than broth to blur the senses.

Foreign songs in familiar styles hover over the room, as bartenders shake drinks and diners slurp from their ramen bowls in unknowing syncopation with the soundtrack. Over the course of a single meal, you might hear a playlist spanning trendy hip-hop, several shades of indie rock, Top 40, and even Cambodian psychedelia. A$AP Rocky could bleed into Alabama Shakes; Dengue Fever might give way to Kendrick Lamar.

“It sets the tone for the night,” Bruner-Yang says. “The music and the lighting is your first interaction before you have a drink or the food. It should be in really good taste, but so nondescript that you’re just having a good time and don’t know what caused it.”

Music, in other words, can be just as important to the personality of a restaurant as its cooking or decor. But soundtracking the right atmosphere is a lot more complicated than setting your iPod to shuffle. Song selection can affect everything from the pace of tables turning to the mood of the staff. Some restaurateurs hire firms to assemble their playlists, while others devote as much time, thought, and heart to song selection as they do their menus, all while navigating a complicated music licensing system.

The playlist Bruner-Yang created for Toki runs eight or nine hours, he says, with about 90 percent of it coming from artists he personally likes. The rest is meant to create a feel to the room that’s “super-exciting but unfamiliar,” he says, much like the restaurant’s loud colors, skateboards, Asian comic art, and soft red lighting. “It’s pretty eclectic,” Bruner-Yang says. “About 85 percent of [diners] really like it, and then some of them don’t understand why they’re listening to rap music while they’re eating ramen.”

Bowing to the vagaries of musical taste, restaurateurs often take the eclectic route to their soundtracks. Like assembling a varied menu, they try to strike more than one note that will make diners happy. “I don’t want to use this word, but ‘quirky’ is a really good way to describe our playlist,” says Mandu owner Danny Lee, who says he spends hours agonizing over his song choices, which he tries to rotate monthly. His playlists hover around four hours and contain a mix of popular artists like Radiohead and Led Zeppelin plus some who are further from the mainstream, like the electronic producer Bonobo and the poppy, reggae-influenced band Wild Belle. To Lee, smooth transitions between songs are essential. “You don’t want to have any abrupt tempo changes or abrupt volume shifts or tonal changes,” he says.

The psychological uses of a smartly curated playlist don’t end with ambiance-setting. Restaurateurs say music can also influence pacing—that is, whether they want to turn over tables or encourage guests to linger over their meals.

“I just try to fit the mood a lot of times. Get people energized, which also kind of moves them in and out of the restaurant faster too, probably,” says Darren Lee Norris, the chef and owner of Kushi Izakaya & Sushi. “I’ve never really done a study to figure out if that’s true or not. But it definitely puts people in a higher-energy mode.”

Describing himself as the “Imelda Marcos of CDs,” Norris says he doesn’t set his playlists ahead of time. Using his iPhone, he plays DJ in real time. Though Norris gravitates toward a range of rock music—including the Ramones, the Rolling Stones, Ponys, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—during lunch service you’ll also hear jazz legends like Thelonious Monk.

Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin, whose restaurants include Birch & Barley, Vermilion, and Tallula, also understands the subliminal effects of music selection. “If people don’t have a good time, they may not be able to put a finger on it,” he says. Say you enjoyed every dish you ate during a meal. The service was good, as reflected in the tip you left. But for some reason, you’re still not quite satisfied. It could be the music, Babin says.

According to Babin’s philosophy, music should appeal to diners who want to treat it as background noise as well as those who might want to discover a new song or hear an old favorite over dinner. He says he solicits input from staff and chefs when deciding what to play at different restaurants, and also finds new music through satellite radio while he’s driving. At red lights, Babin will scribble down songs he likes on a notepad. “You want your dining experience to stand for something, and you want the place to stand for something,” says Babin, who likes to play Curtis Mayfield, White Denim, and Suzi Chunk in his restaurants. “[Music] is one thing you want to take seriously and put some thought into. Giving it some personality is a good thing.”

But not every restaurant has the time or interest to personalize playlists to the extent Babin does. Some turn to companies like Gray V. The New York City firm works with restaurateur Ashok Bajaj of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which owns Bibiana, Rasika, and 701 Restaurant, among others. “We help them design their playlist the way an architect helps them design the space,” says Lori Hon, co-founder of Gray V.

To start, Gray V gives clients five days worth of music with no repeats. Playlists are never in the same order, and Hon suggests restaurant clients don’t play the same music each night. On top of considering the effect music has on diners, Gray V takes into account the servers and front-of-house management. “The music will also help to motivate the staff, and if they hate the music because they hear the same music every night, it will start to wear them down and affect the service they give the guests,” Hon says. If staff are happy listening to the music for 40 hours per week, then chances are guests will be satisfied with what they hear over a two-hour meal.

One aspect of restaurant music that diners never notice: licenses and fees. Playing music in a commercial establishment like a restaurant requires licenses from either or both of the two organizations that distribute the majority of music royalties: the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).

The cost of the licenses vary according to a number of factors, including the restaurant’s square footage, whether the music is live or recorded, and the number of loudspeakers. Bars are even more complicated. Add karaoke, dancing, or another “enhancement to recorded music” at your establishment? That will drive the ASCAP fee up. Having a jukebox requires a separate license. According to ASCAP Senior Vice President Vincent Candilora, restaurants’ annual licenses are typically a few hundred dollars per year.

“It’s an art, not a science, [the] method of calculation,” says local restaurant lawyer Mark “Chipp” Sandground. And if restaurants don’t play by the rules? That’s a copyright violation, which Sandground says are expensive cases to defend and easy for restaurants to lose. Pay the annual fees for the proper licenses, and you’re unlikely to hear from auditors or inspectors. Candilora says lawsuits only happen after ASCAP or BMI has made repeated unsuccessful attempts to contact a restaurant.

Once they’re in the regulatory clear, many restaurateurs still face a personal choice. Many have backgrounds in music or say their song choices reflect their personalities.

For several years, Bruner-Yang played guitar for several years in a local band called Pash. Lee points to his mother and chef of Mandu, Yesoon Lee, as a musical influence. Before becoming a chef, she was a choral director and earned a master’s degree in musical composition. Babin describes himself as a lifelong “music junkie.” His first concert was a Styx show in the third grade, and he remember seeing his sister and her friends listen to tracks from the 1970s in bell bottoms and toe socks. Some of those ’70s tracks now pop up on playlists in Babin’s restaurants.

A more obvious example of a restaurant owner-cum-musician is Eric Hilton, a member of the electronic-music duo Thievery Corporation. Outside of music, Hilton and his brother, Ian Hilton, own trendy restaurants like Marvin, Chez Billy, and American Ice Company.

Most of the music is selected by Eric Hilton himself, says Sheldon Scott, a spokesman for the Hiltons’ ESL restaurant group. Hilton designs playlists for different scenarios, whether it’s the first customer on a quiet Tuesday evening or a packed dining room on a Saturday night. He also customizes the music to each individual property’s feel. At Marvin, for example, you might hear soulful songs from Marvin Gaye, after whom the restaurant is named, in addition to tracks by Gil Scott-Heron, Mos Def, or Shirley Scott. At The Brixton, the music reflects British mod atmosphere with artists like Small Faces, The Jam, and The Clash. Chez Billy, meanwhile, has more jazz, bossa nova, and blues with artists such as Ruth Brown, Ramsey Lewis, Isabelle Antenna, Chet Baker, and Billie Holiday.

“Dining is experienced in all of the senses, not just taste. Music is an important part of the experience and should be designed to accompany the food and fare of the restaurant,” Scott says. For the Hiltons’ restaurants, there’s an added pressure of getting the song selection right: “When you have a world-class musician-slash-DJ associated with your establishment, your music can’t suck.”

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to

Photo by Darrow Montgomery