“L is for the way you look at me, O is for the only one I see …” I’m out for dinner at Bardo St James’s, a new restaurant outside Pall Mall that aims to channel the Italian glamor of the ’50s and’ 60s. There are white tablecloths and red velvet chairs; tuxedo waiters with plates of everything from veal tonnato to tagliolini al ragú; and a live orchestra and singer performing a classic song by Nat King Cole – which Mr Luca Maggiora calls “an experience that slips away the moment you walk through the door”.
Live music in restaurants has never completely disappeared. But the practice of discussing musicians to bring atmosphere has certainly declined, in favor of iPhone playlists about a sound system. I had reservations about the concept at Bardo St James’s, which sounded a lot like Vegas. But after two glasses of vino, I happily tap with my foot under the table. Even though I could not always hear the waiter or my guest about the group’s live rendition of “Tu Vuo ‘Fa’ l’Americano”, the razzmatazz worked his magic.
A growing number of restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic place live action at the heart of their offering. People are desperate to go out and have fun. But the trend goes back further than a post-pandemic appetite for a party. “Traditional nightclubs are basically extinct,” says Joey Ghazal of The Maine in London. “Restaurants need to stand up to the opportunity and fill the gap.” Its venue on Hanover Square includes a basement brasserie with an amphitheater-style dining room and stage, which regularly hosts “Copacabana-style” entertainment. “It’s important to provide a compelling enough reason to come back to the West End,” he says. Live music is also the key to creating what Jonny Gent of Sessions Art Club (another London venue that combines food and action) calls it a “360 experience”. “People no longer have time,” he says. “If you can eat, drink and participate creatively one evening, we have succeeded.”
In New York, Jeff Katz will soon open three restaurants at 85 Tenth Avenue, which includes a cocktail bar, pizzeria and delicious Italian restaurant with an orchestra. The live music will not only be a point of difference from restaurants elsewhere, but also an incentive for customers to stay longer, perhaps starting with a cocktail, followed by pizza, then music and more drinks at the restaurant bar. “If you can make it easy for people to want to do multiple things in one place, they will do it,” Katz says. Another “under one roof” venue, Grandmaster Recorder on Sunset Boulevard in LA, brings a rooftop bar, cocktail lounge and 150-seat dining room, with live performances (rock, jazz, acoustic) in its rooftop deck and lounge areas. The building was once a recording studio and the inclusion of live music is partly a nod to that. In fact, it’s a recurring theme. While music can be a source of income, especially on slow nights, it is also a way for restaurateurs to honor legacy and build community. The basement tapas bar at Morito in Hackney, for example, used to be a recording studio, so it makes sense that chef owners Sam and Sam Clark give the space to local musicians once a week for Morito Music evenings.
Similarly, Jackson Boxer and his brother Frank turned the basement Brunswick House in Vauxhall in a showcase for South London jazz and has a dive bar at Clip Nest (formerly a nightclub venue) on Shaftesbury Avenue which serves as a space for dance and music.
One of the biggest proponents of restaurants as cultural centers is Marcus Samuelsson, whose Rooi Haan restaurants in Harlem and Overtown are located in traditional entertainment districts of New York and Miami, with their strong core of African-American artists. “When you have that legacy, it’s important to follow it,” he says. In Harlem, he employs 70 musicians a week to play gospel, jazz, Latin and soul. “I wanted to make sure local musicians have a place where they can always get a performance.” The venue also played host to great players such as Roberta Flack, John Legend and Madonna, who recently gave a late-night performance, accompanied by Jon Baptiste and his band. Afterwards, the crowd washed up on the streets for an early morning song to “Like a Prayer”. “It’s about scattering magic dust,” says Samuelsson. “And we all want to be part of magic.”